In honor of Umami Mart’s sixth anniversary/ lease-signing and the Japan Week celebration in NYC, this month we spotlight the Japanese Cocktail for Happy Hour. We will review the cocktail’s origins, its ingredients, and offer an improved adaptation that pays homage to Japan.
Cocktail historian David Wondrich gives a through history of the libation in his book Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, A Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of he American Bar (2007). An important fact in the drinks’ story is that there is nothing Japanese about the eponymous drink. The base spirit of brandy (typically Cognac) is French, plus aromatic bitters and orgeat (almond syrup) are not indigenous specialties of Japan.
Apparently in June 1860, the first Japanese legation to the United States was wrapping up their tour of the country in New York City. Their base camp in Manhattan was the Metropolitan Hotel. Guess who was head barman at the Metropolitan? Why, none other than sporting-life journeyman bartender “Professor” Jerry Thomas. Like any stellar host, The Professor created a specialty cocktail for the occasion. The Japanese diplomats must have made quite an impression on Thomas for this drink is one of the only cocktails in Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks (1862) actually invented by the legendary barman.
Japanese Cocktail (Circa 1860)
By Jerry Thomas
1 tablespoon of orgeat syrup
0.5 teaspoonful of Bogart’s bitters
1 wine glass (2 oz) of brandy
1 or 2 pieces of lemon peel
METHOD: Fill a smaller bar glass with one-third with ice, and stir well with a spoon. At some point later in the 19th century, the cocktail was no longer to be served on the rocks, but served up.
THE IMPROVED JAPANESE COCKTAIL
While thinking about ways to improve this recipe I broke it down to the basic components: base spirit, a sweetener, bitters, and citrus essence. The Japanese Cocktail is basically a Cognac Old Fashioned using orgeat syrup in lieu of sugar or simple syrup. I also wanted to go back to the Japanese inspiration for the drink.
Japan is known for bartenders with serious cocktail skills, and in the last thirty years, Japanese whisky has made serious in-roads here in the west and has won many awards. Suntory's Yamazaki/ Hibiki/ Hakushu/ Tory's. Nikka. Chichibu. These are powerhouse names for great aged whiskies and brandies typically used in cocktail bars in Japan, and increasingly here stateside. From the precision of ice carving to the methodology of mixing, Japanese cocktail-making is synonymous with a tea ceremony. I think returning the cocktail to Thomas’ original specification as a rocks drink is also fitting. Instead of loose ice cubes, an ice ball that is standard fare in Japanese bartending is more appropriate.
Yamazaki Single Malt 12-year whiskey (43% ABV) is produced in the town of Shimamoto. Suntory began producing single malt whisky in the model of the Scottish formula in 1923. The distillery is located near the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto, which is known for pure mineral water, and wide range of climate. It is the perfect ecosystem for whisky production. The 12-year single malt has a deep gold color. The flavor of soft ginger and nougat with hint of cocoa and the creamy aftertaste really hit a Sadaharu Oh homerun when mixed with the orgeat syrup.
Orgeat is an almond-based syrup used in many cocktail recipes, especially Tiki drinks. It is not clear why The Professor chose orgeat instead of another sweetener -- perhaps he deemed orgeat to be exotic, like Japan, during his time. Orgeat is pretty fundamental: almond, sugar, water, typically orange flower water are the base ingredients. My favorite recipe is not a store-bought orgeat but an excellent homemade recipe from Joe “The Leisure Master” Desmond of New York’s famous Rhum Rhum Room.
The first time I had it was at the Tiki bar PKNY, where Joe (who is not a professional bartender) was guest bartending and brought his own syrup. Joe and his wife Nicole’s home bar, The Rhum Rhum Room, is a Tiki cocktail destination for the New York cocktail set -- if you get the invite. So I want to thank Joe and Nicole for sharing this exquisite orgeat recipe, it takes a while to make but the end product is killer.
Rhum Rhum Room Orgeat Recipe
By Joe Desmond
6-8 ounces of blanched almonds
2 lb sugar
2 oz almond flour
2 tsp almond extract
8-10 drops orange blossom water
5-10 drops rosewater
Method: Roast almonds in toaster oven (optional). Chop almonds coursely and put in saucepan with almond flour. Add 1 lb sugar and 2 cups water. Heat to dissolve sugar and simmer for 4-5 minutes.
Turn off heat and let sit for 12 hours. Strain through cheesecloth being sure to squeeze all liquids out of the mix. Put liquid back in pan. Should be approximately 25 oz -- then add 1 lb sugar, 1.5 cups water Heat to dissolve sugar.
Let cool. Add almond extract, orange flower water, and rose water. Taste and adjust as needed.
The bitters are critical to keep the orgeat sweetness in check. In Thomas’ recipe, the heavy hand of bitters makes total sense since brandy can be on the sweet side of the scale already. Add orgeat and depending on the brand and proportions, the drink can turn overly sweet. Bogart or Boker’s bitters were a variety of aromatic bitters but are no longer produced. Unless one can get their hands on the equivalent formula, I recommend Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanted Bitters by Bitter Truth.
The citrus oil from the lemon peel adds the necessary hint of sour which makes the first taste so divine.
The Japanese Cocktail (Improved)
Adapted from The Professor’s recipe
2.5 oz Yamazaki Single Malt 12 Year Old whisky
0.5 oz Rhum Rhum Room orgeat syrup
2-3 dashes of Jerry Thomas’ own Decanter Bitters by Bitter Truth
Tools: Mixing glass, julep strainer, bar spoon, jigger, Old Fashioned rocks glass, Swiss peeler
Method: Combine ingredients except lemon peel in mixing glass, and add ice. Stir until well-chilled and strain into a rocks glass. Gently lower spherical ice ball into the drink. Release citrus oils above the drink and add lemon peel as garnish (optional).
Whether you like the traditional recipe or my improved Japanese Cocktail with… ahem, an actual Japanese ingredient, getting the right orgeat and bitters really makes or breaks this drink. Over the counter orgeat, which is either synthetic or real, can often be too sweet. Homemade orgeat lets one modulate the sweet factor to your own specifications.
*Got a cocktail question? Reach Fredo on twitter @loungerati, email me at fredo(at)loungerati(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below!
**Fredo Ceraso is the editor-at-large of the lounge lifestyle blog Loungerati.com. Fredo is a member of the USBG New York chapter and rolls drinks at many Lounge, Swing, Jazz Age, & Burlesque events in New York City