Umami Mart Registry

Here's a column idea that's been brewing for a while: asking bartenders in Japan about their techniques, methods and current cocktail trends. Our first bartender is Mr. Tomokazu Kai, winner of Suntory's 2011 Cocktail Award. Kai-san bartends at Heuga Bar in Gifu prefecture, and we had the pleasure of meeting him back in February for the Tokyo-SF Bartender Salon. Check out this video of him making his signature drink, After the Rain:

A common question we get from bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts in the U.S. is: why don't bartenders in Japan use bitters? Kai-san was kind enough to share with us his insights.

Tomokazu Kai

There are many bartenders in Japan who think that the quality of bitters decreased compared to when cocktails first came into Japan. Many have become sweeter and weaker. Therefore, there are many bartenders who do not use bitters.

The Japanese are not accustomed to spices like cinnamon and cloves. So many Japanese bartenders have substituted those ingredients with other techniques that the Japanese may find more appealing, like controlling the temperature, using different glass shapes, and the bartender's form while making a cocktail.

That said, more bartenders here are incorporating bitters into their cocktails with the recent influence of overseas bartenders. Angostura and orange bitters are mainly used in Japan.

Personally, I think that using bitters for a dry martini is too obstructive. But I think it's appropriate to use bitters for Manhattans and sweeter cocktails to shimeru (tighten) the flavor of the cocktail.

I do have a question for you. Is using bitters a recent trend in the US or have they always used them with such enthusiasm? (Please comment below).

*Got a question to ask a bartender from Japan? Email your question to
**Translated from Japanese to English by Yoko Kumano. Photos by Erin Gleeson.
Column: Ask a Bartender


  • While classic cocktails (before 1920) called for bitters, the only bitters that were available for many years were Angostura and to a lesser extend, Fee Brothers and Peychaud’s. Bartenders didn’t usually use them, even in a Manhattan. Around 2006 (earlier in New York) bartenders began to pay more attention to original recipes for classic cocktails and began to make their own bitters as only those few products were available. Only in the years after this did bitters become popular again. Since 2009 or so, very many new brands of bitters have become available at stores so bartenders no longer need to make their own unless they want to.

    Camper English on

  • “…the only bitters that were available for many years were Angostura and to a lesser extend, Fee Brothers and Peychaud’s”

    To a certain extent this was true when it comes to the US but it certainly wasn’t regarding the global market-place.

    It’s worth considering the era most influential to Japanese bartenders/cocktail when wondering why certain drinks/ingredients are popular there and I’ve always been of the impression the time is around the late 1800s to early 1900s when mixed drinks became drier and 2-3 ingredient drinks became the norm…

    Adam Elmegirab on

  • There’s a book called Forgotten Cocktails and Vintage Spirits written by Ted Haigh that helped this surge for the bitters, since they were common before the Prohibition in America. Some bitters actually saw a return like the Boker’s one made by Adam Elmegirab.

    Geraldo on

  • Back when I started tending bar, Camper is right, bitters were just the weird bottle that every bar had that nobody knew what to do with. Now I refer to bitters as the salt and pepper in a barman’s arsenal.

    When you look back to the classic definition of a “cocktail”, it calls for spirit, sugar, bitters and water. That starts looking like a great old fashioned, but you can swap the spirit for almost any of the bases out there, sugar for any number of syrups, and then match the bitters to the flavor profile you are looking for. If you didn’t look beyond that one simple example, you would still have a formula for dozens of interesting drinks.

    Personally, my current favorite “cocktail” now is 1 oz. each of mezcal and plata tequila, 1/4 oz. agave nectar, 2 dashes of Boker’s Bitters, 6 drops of bittermen’s hellfire shrub, stirred with a lemon peel. It is all about the balance…

    Josh Phillips on

  • I think Camper pretty much summed up the situation. Even if other brands of bitters were available across the world, you’d be very hard pressed to find a bartender who knew what to do with it.

    The issue of bitters aside though, I have to say that after a few years of pondering the subject, I’ve come to the conclusion that Japanese bartending pays way too much attention to technique at the expense of the final product.

    There’s certainly a lot that American bartenders can learn from their overseas brethren in terms of technique, but I also think there’s a lot of hype without anything to back it up, such as the so-called “hard shake.” I’m also not sure I’m sold on this business of rinsing your ice with water first to remove the rough edges.

    Lastly, I don’t understand the fascination with fluorescent blue or green ingredients in Japanese cocktails.

    Having said all that, I’m tremendously thankful to the Japanese bartending tradition for introducing amazing bar tools, keeping the craft alive when it was in a coma in the states, and for reminding us that the bartender is also supposed to be a showman, and not just a beverage dispenser.

    Payman Bahmani on

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