With several big-ticket openings this summer, Japanese-style cocktail bars are back in a big way—slinging Tokyo flavors with New York attitude.
When the late Sasha Petraske launched the American craft cocktail revival at Milk & Honey in 1999, he tapped into not only the lost pages of Prohibition-era drinks manuals, but also into the mesmerizing Japanese art of bartending that he’d witnessed right in New York’s East Village at the legendary speakeasy Angel’s Share.
Those were early days for America's craft cocktail scene as we know it today—days when the Cosmopolitan and too-sweet martini reigned supreme. But Angel’s Share proprietor Tony Yoshida, who had been running various restaurant businesses in NYC since the '70s, sought to showcase the kind of behind-the-bar grace and precision that had been evolving ever since cocktail culture took hold in post-war Japan. Opened in 1993, his cocktail-centric izakaya would become one of city’s most exclusive secrets—one that’s still shared via word-of-mouth to this day.
“It was still kind of foreign at that time—we had to really show and teach people what Japanese bartending was,” recalls Yoshida’s daughter Erina, who now oversees Angel’s Share as COO. “Back then, most people were free-pouring and not making their own ice. But in Japan, there wasn’t space for big ice machines behind the bar, so bartenders started cutting the ice themselves. It became part of the hospitality we offer.”
Over the next two decades, as western-style bartending spread from the cocktail capitals of New York, San Francisco, and London, Japanese bars held court in a sort of parallel universe—ruled by white-blazer-clad bartenders chipping perfect cubes of ice by hand, prioritizing execution of classics over unfettered experimentation with ingredients. While New York bartenders were inventing the likes of Penicillins and Trinidad Sours, their Japanese counterparts refined the classics. (The most well-known Japanese “invention” has to be the whisky-and-soda highball, which became popular back in the ‘20s when Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii pioneered the first Japanese whiskies, and which is having something of a renaissance today.)
“Places like Angel's Share reintroduced us not only to classic cocktails, but how to make them right,” explains Kenta Goto, bartender-owner of the Japanese-inflected Bar Goto. “In the last 20 years, this has gradually become the new standard in the modern cocktail movement in the United States.”
Goto should know: Although born in Tokyo, he was trained professionally in the American bartending tradition, spending seven years as head bartender of Audrey Saunders’ famed Pegu Club. So in 2015, when Goto opened his eponymous solo project, he became one of the first to usher in a new kind of Japanese-ish crossover bar—infusing Japanese flair and Asian ingredients into definitively American bartending. Using the Prohibition canon as a foundation, Goto layered his cocktails with Japanese flavors—think a martini with a salted cherry blossom or a sake-accented riff on the classic Eastside (cleverly called the Far East Side) with yuzu bitters.
Now, three years later, a full-on explosion of high-profile openings from industry veterans is highlighting the nuanced shades of Japanese mixology.
Among them are Bar Moga, helmed by Frank Cisneros, the first bartender to be granted a Japanese visa for the express purpose of bartending; Katana Kitten from Masa Urushido, formerly of Saxon + Parole, along with Cocktail Kingdom’s Greg Boehm; Tokyo Record Bar from sommelier Ariel Arce; Straylight, an eclectic subterranean hideaway overseen by Dorothy Elizabeth; and Hidden Pearl, nestled in a ramen shop with cocktails by husband-wife duo Natasha David and Jeremy Oertel.
In addition to representing the best and brightest of bar talent in New York, Erina Yoshida says this diverse group of bars also showcases the varied drinking experiences you’ll find in Japan.
“It’s nice to see different perspectives on Japanese cocktails that go beyond Ginza-style bartending” she says, referencing the Tokyo neighborhood famed for its traditional buttoned-up bars. “It’s not just about technique and consistency, but about good hospitality and having fun. You’ll find these kinds of bars in the alleyways of Yokocho or the mom-and-pop spots in Golden Gai.”
At Katana Kitten, for example, the design and decor nod directly to Tokyo’s Golden Gai, a magical network of alleyways in which hundreds of tiny bars are stacked atop one another. True to the ethos of that fun-loving district, Urushido ups the playfulness of his cocktails with twists on classic favorites: Italy’s spritz is reimagined with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit, while his take on the Caribbean swizzle highlights Calpico, a popular Asian yogurt drink.
Urushido credits the inventiveness of new-wave of Japanese bars like his, in part, to the treasure trove of global influences and talent found in New York.
“They are all essentially Japanese-American bars with different levels of Japanese influence in terms of ingredients and styles,” he says. “With talented staff gathered from all different parts of the world, you can really find this dynamic in places like New York City.”
But as much as they draw upon New York’s creativity and bold experimentation, the city’s postmodern Japanese cocktail dens are now likewise pushing local drinkers to learn about and embrace wholly Japanese flavors.
"Some of my favorites are yuzu, shiso, and umeshu,” says Jeremy Oertel, reflecting on the ingredients he used in developing the menu at Brooklyn’s Hidden Pearl. “Cocktails are a great way to introduce people to these new ingredients. This worked really well at Mayahuel with mezcal. It’s a way to get people to try something without committing to a whole glass of it.”
These days, yuzu and matcha are no longer considered “exotic”; most of the high-end barware your bartender uses is made in the Japanese style; and you can get a pour of Japanese whisky—now some of the most sought-after juice on the planet—at any reputable bar from Houston to Chicago.
“I still remember 11 years ago working as a bartender at a New York Japanese restaurant serving Yamazaki 12 and 18—none of my guests knew Japan made whisky at that time,” remembers Karen Lin, executive general manager at Bar Moga. “We sold a glass of Yamazaki 18 for around $20 if I remember correctly. It’s a crazy thought since it easily goes for over $100 per pour these days.”
Japan’s largest whisky producers, in turn, have even begun launching new lines of blended and non-age-statement whiskies that are both more price-friendly and versatile for mixing—a direct response to the rapid rise of the Japanese cocktail genre around the globe. Take, for example, Suntory’s Toki, a blended whisky released in 2016 specifically for cocktails, which has now become one of the spirits du jour for highballs worldwide.
“For a long time, many associated Japanese whisky as expensive ‘sipping’ whisky,” says Gardner Dunn, senior brand ambassador for the House of Suntory. “But the craft cocktail movement has created a more knowledgeable and sophisticated drinker. We’ve seen more and more bars across the country putting Toki on their cocktail menus.”
At Katana Kitten, for one, Masa Urushido tops his Toki highball with a pickled sour plum (ume). Meanwhile, at Hidden Pearl, there's a four-drink selection of contemporary highballs that stir in everything from oloroso sherry to pear brandy. The popularity of these new-age Japanese highballs—now ubiquitous even at non-Japanese bars—marks a full-circle path for the gospel of Japanese bartending in America. And with the Japanese-American cocktail bar symbolizing a new genre in its own right, the dialogue may be going both ways.
“We’re now starting to also see a reverse influence of Japanese bartenders who have spent time in the U.S. working with American bartenders returning to Japan,” says Karen Lin. “They’re bringing that creativity along with them, now possibly starting a new evolution of cocktail bars in Japan.”