What Julia Momosé Can Teach Us About Japanese Cocktail Culture
Make this Yaki-Imo Old Fashioned from her new cocktail book.
Julia Momosé remembers her first time in a cocktail bar. She was in the historic Gion district of Kyoto, Japan, and even though it was her home country, the experience felt completely new. Every minute detail—the ice clinking, the soft piano, the cascade of a perfect martini pour—inspired her to become a bartender.
“In Japan, it’s almost like a call and response,” says Momosé, partner and creative director at Kumiko in Chicago. “When you walk in the door, you’re immediately welcomed in with oshibori, or a damp towel that is warm in the winter and cold in the summer. There’s a seating charge in the form of a snack. There are things you know to expect, but so many little moments of surprise and joy along the way.”
Momosé captures these moments in a new book co-written with Emma Janzen, The Way of the Cocktail, which details Japanese cocktail traditions, techniques, and recipes. She shares memories of growing up and working in Kyoto before coming to America to study at Cornell University and flourishing as a bartender in Chicago. The book includes a fascinating history of Japanese drink culture, as well as guides on tools and glassware, and recipes organized by season.
“When I moved to America, I thought it was interesting that almost every house has central air—windows are closed and you don’t really feel the wind,” she remembers. “Growing up in Japan, we had fans blowing and windows open, so you could feel the seasons and be close to nature in that sense. Summer meant the sounds of cicadas and frogs at night and cooling off with watermelon, tomatoes, and barley tea.”
Always follow the microseasons
Nature and seasonality is one of the biggest themes in The Way of the Cocktail, with recipes organized into 24 transitional periods throughout the year, such as “snowfall turns to rain” and “crisp morning chill.”
“The calendar was originally created for farmers and it was based on things happening in nature,” Momosé says. “These microseasons I write about are very Japanese, based on native plants and trees that you would find there.”
One cocktail that really exemplifies a certain microseason is the Tomato Sherry Cobbler, for the “intense heat” portion of summer. The simple drink calls for farmers’ market tomatoes, shiso that blooms in late summer, and fresh lemon juice. “No fuss feels very summery,” she adds.
Slow and steady service wins the race
Besides a deep connection with nature, Japanese cocktail culture also focuses more on precision than pace, Momosé explains. When she got to America, she noticed that bartenders had a bit more of a flashy nature—double shaking or double stirring for both maximum flair and efficiency.
“In Japan, there’s also this sense of beautiful twists and twirls or the spoon, but it’s more nuanced and subdued,” she says. “Usually, one drink is made at a time and all the focus goes into that. When it’s placed in front of the guest, it’s placed in the perfect time of the drink’s life.”
Plus, American bar culture is more conducive to larger groups going out together, whereas many Japanese bars are small. “It would be very odd to see a group bigger than two, which allows bartenders to focus,” she says. “Seems to be an effortless dance from start to finish.”
Bars embody the concept of wa
Momosé says that effortless dance is related to the Japanese concept of wa. (In fact, she almost called the book Wa and the Japanese character for the word can be seen on its title page.)
Wa itself is actually the old word for Japan, typically translated as “harmony” in English and can apply to art, design, architecture, and, yes, cocktails. Though it is a broad term, wa is very much steeped in the traditions and culture of Japan, mostly related to a peaceful experience.
“A classic example would be the Japanese tea ceremony,” Momosé says. “It starts with the way the room looks, the art of wearing a kimono. When we look at bartending in the style of wa, it could be about the way we wash and dry our tools, or facing the bottle towards the guest as we make drinks. All of that is done to create something seamless.”
Snacks are just as important as cocktails
That bar experience also often involves food. Since Japanese bars are so small, barstools are precious and guests are asked to pay a seating charge in exchange for a snack as soon as they arrive. The food could be anything from a bowl of mixed nuts to dry fruit and wasabi peas or some bites of chocolate.
When Momosé and her husband Sammy went to a tiny whisky bar called Shu-Han-Li in Saitama, just outside of Tokyo, they were served a halved avocado toasted with melted cheese and sprinkled with togarashi.
“These snacks are meant to be enjoyed alongside drinks, it could make you crave a highball, an old fashioned, or a martini,” she says. “I needed to include the avocado with cheese in the book—it was such a wow moment.”
Make cocktails that evoke a memory
Another must-have for the book was the Yaki-Imo Old Fashioned, a drink Momosé developed while she was bartending years ago in Baltimore.
“I was doing some R&D at home, infusing sweet potatoes in bourbon,” she remembers. “Regulars of mine were chefs and they were super excited when I told them about it. But they advised me to salt roast the sweet potatoes first so they will have deeper flavors. That was the key and it just smelled like home to me, like fall in Japan.”
The recipes calls for Japanese whisky as a base (such as Ichiro’s Malt and Grain, Nikka From the Barrel, or Hibiki Japanese Harmony), spiced Kuromitsu that has the incredible richness of a molasses made with star anise, coriander, and sansho berries.
“This drink reminds me of when the sweet potato trucks would come around in late fall in Japan,” Momosé says. “You’d get these super hot potatoes in the cold, sometimes with a pat of butter and a little black sugar on top. They were perfect and sweet and delicious.”
Yaki-Imo Old Fashioned Recipe
- 2 ounces Salt-Roasted Sweet Potato–Infused Japanese Whisky (recipe follows)
- ½ ounce Spiced Kuromitsu (recipe follows)
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Orange peel and Scrappy’s cardamom bitters for garnish
In a mixing glass, combine the infused whisky, spiced kuromitsu, and Angostura bitters. Add ice and stir to chill. Strain into a rocks glass over one large piece of ice. Express the oils of a manicured orange peel over the top of the drink and garnish with the manicured peel and one drop of green cardamom bitters.
Salt-Roasted Sweet Potato Japanese Whisky
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Wash 2 to 3 medium sweet potatoes and prick a few holes into the skin using a fork. Line a medium baking sheet with foil and cast a thick layer of coarse kosher salt over the foil. Then place the prepared sweet potatoes on the bed of salt and cover with another layer of salt. Wrap the edges of the foil up over the sweet potatoes and cover with another sheet of foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove the top piece of foil and continue to bake for another 15 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, brush the salt from the skin of the sweet potatoes. Peel the sweet potatoes and break them apart into smaller pieces. Place 1½ cups of the roasted sweet potatoes into a large container with a lid and add a 750-milliliter bottle of Japanese whisky (something with an ABV of 45% or higher, such as Ichiro's Malt and Grain, Nikka From The Barrel or Hibiki Japanese Harmony). Set aside to infuse for 2 days, shaking well two or three times a day to break apart the sweet potato. Strain through a coffee filter or cheesecloth and store in an airtight container or sterilized bottle in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. Makes about 20 ounces.
With a mortar and pestle, crack enough star anise pods to yield 2 tablespoons, and combine with 1 teaspoon dried sanshō berries and 2 teaspoons coriander seeds. In a dry saucepan, toast the cracked spices over medium-low heat until aromatic. Add 1 cup room-temperature water, bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and simmer for 3 minutes. Strain the spiced water over ¾ cup of shaved kokutō in a tempered bowl. Stir until the kokutō dissolves into a homogenous mixture; I recommend doing this over a double boiler as the kokutō can be difficult to dissolve (hence the tempered bowl). Measure in 5 tablespoons of honey. Stir until fully incorporated and chill. Store refrigerated for up to 3 weeks. Makes 10 ounces.
Reprinted from The Way of the Cocktail by Julia Momosé and Emma Janzen. Copyright © 2021 by Julia Momosé. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Photographs copyright © 2021 by Kevin Miyazaki.