What Makes Japanese Cocktail Bars So Special?

What Makes Japanese Cocktail Bars So Special?

We're all aware that the Japanese are just great and special at most things, and that includes drinking. When the Japanese drink they go hard and they do it well. It is a luxurious celebration of all the best things about drinking: great alcohol, great company and a great atmosphere.

You can see why Japanese style cocktail bars have become so popular in other parts of the world like America and the UK.

What is a Japanese Style Cocktail Bar?

Well it’s kinda in the name, but if you’re struggling then here you go: it’s a bar that serves cocktails and is themed around Japan and serves cocktails like they would in Japan.

This doesn’t mean that they are kitschy and cheesy, with an inauthentic air, like a caricature of a culture. Rather, they serve drinks in the style of Japanese bartenders, with precision and delicacy, and they serve spirits and cocktails with Asian concepts and twists.

The Japanese have a totally different drinking culture, one which regards the drink and those making it with respect. Bartending is a well thought of and highly respectable job there.

This means that while bars in the states or in the UK can style themselves on Japanese culture, they can’t completely replicate Japanese cocktail bars as the cultural difference wouldn’t allow for it.

Despite this inability to perfectly transplant Japanese bars, those that recreate the general style have become very popular, with new ones popping up everywhere.

In New York the standouts are Bar Goto and Angel’s Share, which are both renowned for their success at recreating Japanese style cocktail making.

The UK has Lost in Tokyo in Manchester and Happiness Forgets in London. The latter of these is especially adept at capturing the more intimate feeling of a Japanese cocktail bar.

Finally, if you really want to experience a proper Japanese cocktail bar, then where better than Japan itself. In the Ginza district of Tokyo, which is world-famous for its bars, you’ll find Bar High Five, Bar Hoshi and Ginza Tender.

These are some of the best examples of why the Japanese are so well thought of for their bars. They are tucked away, slightly hidden and have a relaxed atmosphere. Ginza is especially well known for its bars, so if you do find yourself in Tokyo, this is the place to be.

What makes them so special?

Japanese style cocktail bars aren’t your average bars. They do not simply throw some liquid together, stick a lemon on the side and call it a cocktail. They consider things, they think about how it should be done, and how they can achieve harmony.

This is a massive theme in Japanese culture; the harmony between man and nature, and they strive for it in all walks of life. There’s even a Whisky by Hibiki called Harmony.

With their cocktails, everything is very precise and to the point. Nothing is frivolous; the flavours must work together in a delicate cohesion. Even the movements of the bartenders are thought out and meticulous.

The cocktails themselves are something to behold. There are many cocktails made exclusively from Japanese spirits, with Sake and Whisky high on the list of ingredients. Japanese spirits are almost exclusively used to make cocktails in Japan, meaning there a re a lot of really unique and exciting experiences to be had.

A Lemon Sour is very popular and made from lemon juice, Club Soda and Shochu (a Japanese spirit distilled from rice). Similar to this is the Matcha Hai, which is also made with Shochu, but with Matcha tea or powder added. Cassis is also massively popular and is often mixed with other fruit juices, as is Umeshu, a plum liqueur.

The Japanese also give typical cocktails an Asian twist, using Japanese ingredients. Whether it’s adding Matcha, lychee, Sake or any other type of Japanese spirit, drinking in Japan means embracing their drinks and their culture.

Down to the last ice cube

As well as the perfect balance in flavour, Japanese mixologists are also known for the high quality of their drinks. Again, this goes for a lot of Japanese culture, as is evidenced by their Whisky.

With cocktails, they go all out. Only the best ingredients will do, and the result is perfection. It’s really not surprising that Japanese cocktail bars are so popular because the drinks they make are amazing. There is no such thing as bog standard with these places, everything is unique.

Even their ice is the best quality. It is crystal clear and hand shaved, unless it’s a perfect sphere, which they serve with Highballs. Again, like everything else in their drinks, this is something they think about, and they have the tools to make it and are well known for their ice knives.

Rather than use lots of little cubes that melt faster, it is more common for Japanese bartenders to use one block of ice, like they do with the Highball. A new trend is to have an ice diamond instead of a cube or ball, not only because it melts slower, but also because it looks good. It serves two purposes: to be efficient and to be entertaining, and what more can you really ask for?

How they do it

As well top-notch ingredients, the Japanese have a certain respect for the art of cocktail making.

Their barware is of the best quality, made from good materials and efficient in design. The jiggers they use are two different sizes and are now the most commonly used – the Ginza Jigger. Even the mixing spoons and shakers are very precisely made using the best metal.

Their glassware is on a whole different level as well, with very finely made crystal glasses. The Highball glass is most commonly used in Japan, and while to us it might seem simple, in Japan everything has to be made to the best quality.

Making glassware is a tradition in itself for the Japanese, so it makes sense that their barware and the glasses they serve cocktails in would uphold that tradition.

Who influences whom?

The irony of their barware is that it has largely been influenced by American cocktail culture. But this is less surprising when you realise that the two traditions have been going back and forth between each other for years, with the majority of influence being handed down by the Japanese.

Cocktails originally came to Japan from America in the late 1800s, but from here, the country made it their own.

During prohibition, cocktails boomed in the states, but swiftly died in the decades after. Japanese cocktail culture remained largely the same during this time, with the techniques and skills being handed down without really any change.

But when Angel’s Share opened in New York it was a revelation. Cocktail hadn’t been popular after prohibition in America, but in Japan they had thrived. From this, the American cocktail scene was reborn and people embraced them and began adapting how they were made from the Japanese.

Japan has been very insular about their cocktail culture, keeping things between themselves and sticking to the tradition. This allowed the culture to stay safe from outside influence and to grow.

With American cocktail culture on the other hand, there is more of a mix and many of the Japanese style cocktail bars in the states tend to be a “hybrid” of the two.

So which is better?

It’s hard to say, because each has its own qualities, but Japanese style bars are really taking off across the globe and not just in America.

There is a certain reverence for the art of bartending in Japan, where exclusive bars tend to be peaceful and with fewer crowds. The bartenders themselves are well respected and treat cocktail making like a true craft.

The influence from both cultures is evident in American Japanese style bars, which is good in itself because it keeps the spirit of American bartending just as much as it embraces the Japanese side.

Ultimately both are good and let’s be honest, the best way to figure out which is best is to get down there are see for yourself.

Cover image: Bar Goto

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