If you’ve ever visited Japan, you’ll know that the Japanese have a serious love for Scotch whisky, you just have to step inside the Scotch Malt Whisky bars in Tokyo and Kyoto to understand how deep that love affair runs.
Scotch sailed into Japan in 1853 on the back of a U.S navy ship, where it was presented to the then thirteenth shogun, Tokugawa Iesada, and the thirst for it has not since been quenched. One of the many reasons I love this wonderful country! Particularly now that cocktail culture on the rise in the land of the rising sun, with Scotch cocktails popping up on menus all over the place, often incorporating unique Japanese ingredients, from sakura (cherry tree) to matcha to yuzu and everything in between. Here are a few of my favourites and where you can find them…
First up in the Scotch cocktail rankings; the Highball. Although not technically a cocktail, it is THE most popular way of drinking Scotch in Japan. Not familiar with a highball? It’s essentially a Scotch and soda on steroids. Think fancy glassware, lashings of ice, citrus twists and sprigs of fresh herbs that come together to create a refreshingly delicate drink with subtle complexities. The highball is so popular in Japan that certain distilleries are producing highball editions purely for the Japanese market. Take ‘Kun-shu’ and ‘Sakura’ (distributed by Scotch Malt Sales Ltd), both decidedly peaty Islay single malts with subtle sweetness that lend themselves perfectly to the Highball, so much so that they are marketed to be used solely in Highball serves. The distilleries are kept as closely guarded secrets, and the bottles are only available in the Japanese market, but they shouldn’t be too hard to find on menus out here. Bar Mousse and K6 in Kyoto serve great versions.
Second on the list is the Old Fashioned; one of the most delicious classic cocktails if made correctly. Upon first arrival in Japan, I was shocked at how different a Japanese Old Fashioned is to any I’ve tried in the UK or US. American whisky in Japan has not yet had its 15 minutes of fame, with the majority of bars having only a very limited selection of only very well-known bourbons and accompanying cocktails, so much so that I often see a Japanese Old Fashioned made with Scotch. I’m certainly not adverse to a Scotch Old Fashioned and especially the one tantalizing tastebuds at L’Escamoteur in Kyoto. Possibly the greatest Old Fashioned I’ve ever tried, Rossi (Owner of L’Esca and creator of their smoky Old Fashioned) uses Japanese sakura (cherry tree) chippings and cinnamon sticks to smoke their Scotch before serving straight from the smoking jar. Delicious!
Rob Roy. Scotch, sweet vermouth and orange bitters. My holy trinity. Japanese bartenders are known for their fastidious stirring and there’s no better example that I can think of than the Rob Roy and no one better to make it than Kenji Tsubokura-san of Bar Rocking Chair. Tsubokura-san has previously been crowned Japan’s best bartender by the Nippon Bartenders Association and this year he won World’s best at the International Bartending Competition. His Rob Roy is smooth, bittersweet and beautifully made.
Plucking for a very different style of cocktail next, we have the Whisky Sour. Sours are known to have a wonderful simplicity to them; a modest combination of spirit, citrus and sweetener. The majority will also contain a bittering agent to augment the lovely sweetness and perhaps even egg white to add a luxuriously rich mouthfeel. The Japanese version of the Scotch sour commonly omits the egg white and, sticking to their penchant for low alcohol cocktails, will sometimes add a soda top. The best I’ve had is a Yuzu Scotch Sour shaken up by the guys at the Four Seasons in Kyoto, although it’s not on the menu, the bartenders introduced me to it (and I’m sure would be more than happy to share their tasty secret with others) as a welcome Japanese citrus twist to a classic sour, it’s perfectly balanced and has the most delicately fragrant yuzu nose.
Ultimately we have the Rusty Nail. An excellent showcase for Scotch, this classic is a mix of whisky and Drambuie, often garnished with a citrus twist. With many bartenders in Japan now incorporating more Japanese ingredients into their cocktails, the Rusty Nail is particularly good with the addition of sakura liqueur alongside the Drambuie in this classic cocktail, giving a wonderfully smooth and slightly floral finish.
It’s not only the flavours behind Japanese cocktails that are unique, but the style in which they are created and served. In a country where perfect manners and politeness are the way of life, it’s no surprise that these attributes extend into the cocktail culture. Here there’s no pomp and ceremony, no frenzied shaking or ostentatious flair, instead it’s modest, quiet and humble, where the focus is on you as a customer receiving the best possible experience.
Japanese bartenders are perpetually practicing their art and each drink is a display of their life’s training offered up for your enjoyment. Not only does this training apply to the liquid ingredients, but also with the frozen solid elements too. Like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, the Japanese have a fascination with ice. Bartenders train for years to sharpen their ice cutting artistry, with even the smallest of bars using sublimely shaped, crystal clear chunks that are almost invisible in the glass they are so flawless. Immaculate blocks of diamond-like frozen bergs are delivered to bars at the beginning of each day. They’re stored in special freezers and when needed, they’re chipped and chiseled away at by hand to create spheres and cubes with exceptional clarity. These ice forms are then gently placed in glasses upon which cocktails are built, or used in shakers and mixing vessels to give ultimate cooling with minimal dilution.
All in all, Japan is top notch at top Scotch cocktails…