Bartender Julia Momosé
Photo: Kevin Miyazaki

The Slow, Intentional Art of a Japanese Cocktail

Japanese-American bartender Julia Momosé outlines the ingredients and traditions that define the country’s cocktail culture in “The Way of the Cocktail.”
By Alexxa Gotthardt
January 5, 2022
9 minute read

The beginnings of Julia Momosé’s deeply patient, intentional bartending practice can be traced back to one fateful night in Kyoto, Japan. It was her first time in a cocktail bar, which she entered via a concrete staircase swathed in soft, bright moss. Inside, away from the bustling city streets, a bartender in a white suit jacket methodically crafted her martini. “When he poured the cocktail into the glass, the sight was like a moonstone melting into its setting,” Momosé writes in her new book, The Way of the Cocktail: Japanese Traditions, Techniques, and Recipes (Clarkson Potter), which she co-wrote with food-and-drink writer Emma Janzen. “With a flourish, lemon oils were expressed over the glistening jewel. […] It was then I knew I wanted to be a bartender. I wanted to provide that experience for other people.”

Momosé’s book elaborates on her upbringing in Japan and illustrious bartending career—one guided by the considered ethos of Japanese cocktail culture and manifested in her award-winning Chicago bars, Kumiko and Kikkō (the latter of which is currently on hiatus). Inspired by the 24 micro-seasons (sekki) that guide Japanese life and daily rituals, recipes for drinks—including the herbaceous, nectar-laden Ichigo Sour and lemongrass shōchū-laced Opal Martini—are intertwined with details about Japan’s history, culture, and reverence for process. We recently spoke with Momosé about the ingredients and flavors that feature in Japanese cocktail culture, and some of the purposeful steps that lead to an exquisite, distinctively memorable (and quaffable) final form.

This is your first book. What prompted you to write it?

I really wanted to show that there’s more to Japanese cocktails than just the ingredients and recipes—that there’s a much deeper interconnectedness between Japanese culture and what so many [people] are learning to love about Japanese cocktails. Writing this was about more than recipes: It’s a deep dive into the traditions around eating and drinking in Japan, and also the history of how [they have] been influenced by the West, embraced these influences, and then very much made them their own—which, I believe, gives Japanese cocktails the right to have a title that denotes them as something from this particular country.

How does that play out in the bar? What defines Japanese cocktail culture for you?

Putting yuzu or matcha or ume into a cocktail doesn’t necessarily make it Japanese. It’s more the intent and thought behind every element. This is very much why I wanted to call the book The Way of the Cocktail, because it is a journey and a process, and each step along the way is so very important: from when you first start training, learning, and falling in love with the ingredients to perfecting the techniques. These all build on each other to make the best drink possible for a given person in a given moment. Sometimes that person is yourself, just at home, and sometimes, as a professional bartender, it’s the guest across from you at the bar. Whatever the case, I like to think of everything as being interconnected, and that’s very much the Japanese way of eating and drinking.

Another thing that sets Japanese cocktail culture apart, especially in the professional bar setting, is that it’s not entirely about speed, getting as many drinks out as possible, or flair and flashes. When you’re in a cocktail bar in America, there’s often a constant sense of urgency that’s palpable. People are double shaking, or stirring and shaking at the same time—there’s this intensity—whereas in Japan, the focus is placed on one single drink at a time. There’s an overall sense of patience that stands out.

Does that approach apply to technique, too?

One technique that’s very, very Japanese is [used to make] the highball. It’s actually the very first recipe—well, a recipe and also a non-recipe—that I share in the book. I call it the Momosé method: a series of steps I developed from watching masters at the craft and from my own studies of how I like to make my highball. I think it leads to the best version of such a seemingly simple drink—one that can be so much more than the sum of its parts.

The steps are: Select the perfect glass, chill it with ice, then pour off any melted water before adding your chilled spirit. Next, pour the sparkling component so that it doesn’t hit the ice, or even the glass, directly; it will lose effervescence when it hits a different surface. Rather, aim it right into the pool of whiskey, so that it can swoop in and integrate. Instead of stirring, it’s a very gentle muscle that lifts the ice from underneath, so that the club soda and whiskey can come together as crisp and bubbly and refreshing as possible. It’s another example of patience and time and technique, but at the end of the day, it’s also just a highball. I love that about it—the Japanese way of taking everyday things and making them really beautiful.

Hot cocktails also stand out. While they aren’t entirely unique, there are hot drinks pretty much everywhere in Japan when the weather is cold. There’s one bar in particular, called Bar Charleston, that really stands out to me. There, it’s actually in the design of the bar: They place spotlights right above the workstation so you can see the bartender mixing, but when they make hot cocktails, they turn off the spotlight just at the moment when they set the alcohol on fire. There’s a light switch right under the bar station, so it’s a seamless movement where, all of a sudden, the light goes dim and you see them creating this gorgeous hot drink. It’s such a beautiful display, and implemented in a space that has been specifically planned for it, long in advance.

What about ingredients and flavors? Are there any that are particularly distinct?

Interestingly, in the really traditional cocktail bars, you actually see more Scotch than Japanese whisky. They [also] have Tanqueray and Gordon’s Gin and, of course, Campari and vermouth—very recognizable, very Western brands and names. While a large part of the focus of flavor in Japanese cocktails is simply on dedicating oneself or one’s bar to a particular process, there is a new set of Japanese cocktail bars that are reaching for local and native ingredients such as yuzu, and unshu, and hassaku—whatever citrus is really amazing in the market at the moment.

On an even smaller scale, there’s a style of bar that can be attributed to a specific area of Tokyo called Ginza. A focus of the Ginza cocktail style is fresh fruit, and in some bars—I love one called Bar Orchard—their entire menu is just a platter of very carefully selected fruit, whatever is best in the season. You choose your fruit, and the drink is based on that. This also speaks to how we are impacted by the seasons so greatly and embrace the changing seasons [in Japan]—and why the book is laid out in the twenty-four micro-seasons.

Fresh fruit is very, very popular and what’s interesting—and another difference to Western cocktail culture—is that [Japan] rarely processes these ingredients before using them. It’s more common to see an apple with the skin on, rather than being peeled and processed, whether mashed or juiced à la minute for the drink. In America, that apple probably would have been made into a juice, a syrup, or some kind of infusion. That’s another way of showcasing this notion of patience at the cocktail bar in Japan, where I’m more than happy to watch [bartenders] work their magic with a whole piece of fruit, even though it takes much longer to receive the final drink.

Do you have any other guidance for those who are reading your book or are new to Japanese cocktail culture?

One small thing—just a fun suggestion—is that they don’t necessarily have to start at the beginning of the book’s recipe section. Rather, I would invite them to flip through to find the season [that coincides with the current one] wherever they may be in the world. Whether it’s the first frost or the first snowfall—or a little later in the year, when the cherry blossoms are starting to bloom—try making a drink in that season, and see how much fun it can be to highlight, and to live in, that season for a moment.