Note: Many thanks to Jeremy / La Maison du Whisky Singapore for the opportunity to attend this insightful masterclass with The Japanese Bitters!
Many in the bar and cocktail world view Yuki Yamazaki as a front-runner in his niche – bringing authentic Japanese flavours to the realm of cocktail bitters.
It’s the 2010s and Toronto's already been experiencing a vibrant nightlife and cocktail scene; bars echoed with the sounds of shaking, stirring, and the clinks of well-made cocktails. Among the bartenders experiencing Toronto’s cocktail renaissance was a young Japanese man called Yuki Yamazaki. Far from the neon streets of Tokyo, it was in Toronto that Yuki first stumbled into the world of cocktail bitters.
A quick introduction: Cocktail bitters are to bartenders what spices are to chefs – think of them as the salt and pepper of the bartending world. Coming in little glass bottles with dropper tops, these potent herb concoctions drinks with depth and complexity. Think of the Old Fashioned: without bitters, it would be merely whiskey and sugar; with a couple dashes of Angostura bitters, it's a storied cocktail with layers of flavour.
Back then, Japanese bars primarily had orange bitters, yet Yuki noticed that the range of bitters available in Canada was expansive, with more than 100 brands. But what caught Yuki's eye wasn't just the sheer variety – it was the craft behind them. Many Canadian bartenders weren't just pouring bitters; they were creating them. This wasn't just about adding flavour; it was about artistry, culture, and a touch of personal flair.
Around this time, two Japanese phenomenon were unfurling in the drinks scene. Japanese whisky, notably Nikka and Yamazaki (no relation to Yuki), were capturing the world's attention. Japanese bartending, with its unique flavours and elegance, was becoming increasingly renowned. Yet, as the world fell in love with Japanese whiskies and Japanese bartending, Yuki noticed a gap. For all the love of Japanese flavours in alcohol, there were no authentic Japanese cocktail bitters.
Bridging this gap became Yuki's mission. The result? The Japanese Bitters Company. With the help of contacts at Mars Whisky, Yuki obtained a distilling license and set up a facility in Chiba, Japan. Then he created the world’s first brand of cocktail bitters crafted exclusively from ingredients authentic to Japan. It was a testament to Yuki's journey, and a nod to the rich tapestry of Japanese flavours.
The Japanese Bitters Masterclass
One rainy evening in Singapore, at the intimate bar setting of La Maison du Whisky, we experienced first hand the creations of Yuki Yamazaki and his cocktail bitters. Beneath the soft bar lights, Yuki introduced us to his initial trio of bitters that captured essential Japanese flavours: the zesty Yuzu, the herbaceous Shiso, and the deeply savoury Umami.
These bitters hover around 27 to 28% ABV (although exact ABV isn’t very important once added to a cocktail), and were made with a two to three-month maceration process. The technique employs both traditional soaking and a modern sous-vide vacuum decompression, all in a bid to extract the most flavours from the ingredients.
We began with the Yuzu bitters, derived from the maceration of yuzu peels. The instruction was simple: a drop on the back of the palm, a brief moment to inhale the aroma, and then a taste. The flavour profile was unmistakably yuzu, but intensified. There was a pronounced ume fruit plummy note coupled with a distinct citrus rind-like bitterness which painted a vivid flavour picture.
With a glint in his eye, Yuki shared his insights. This intense yuzu character melds seamlessly with gin. In a playful tone he suggested that there’s little reason to spend extra on a Japanese gin like the Roku. This bitter can bring that Japanese essence to any standard G&T. “You can save money,” Yuki concluded. He suggested pairing it with classics like the dry martini, or using it to brighten up sweet and sour staples like margaritas, gimlets, or a whiskey sour.
After the bold citrus notes of the Yuzu bitter, Yuki transitioned us to another cornerstone of Japanese flavours: the Shiso bitters. This bitters drew its essence from fresh Japanese perilla leaves sourced directly from Chiba. This tasted of aromatic woodiness, underlined by sweet liquorice and a subtle herbaceous backdrop.
Shiso holds a special place in Japanese cuisine. It’s often a garnish in sashimi dishes, or directly incorporated into various dishes. But to experience it in this concentrated form was a novel experience, even for those well-acquainted with this garnish.
This is at once familiar yet novel when distilled into a bitter. And just as with the Yuzu bitter, Yuki pointed out the versatility of the shiso bitter. This aromatic woodiness and herbaceousness would also pair nicely with a gin & tonic or a martini.
The third bitter on our tasting journey was the 'Umami', a flavour term that is foundational to Japanese culinary artistry. On tasting the Umami bitters, it offered a strikingly rich profile - bold notes of bonito and the oily savouriness of freshly grilled salmon belly with the skin. It felt like we were tasting the very essence of Japanese teppanyaki, with its rich oily depths and balanced savouriness.
Yuki gives us a brief detour into history to reminds us that it was Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda who, after studying soup made from kombu, published his revolutionary research into his understanding of the umami flavour that changed the culinary world. While salt, sweet, sour, and bitter were the widely accepted tastes, Ikeda posited a fifth - umami. This wasn’t just a new flavour; it was the very essence of meaty savouriness, adding a depth to dishes that was both distinct and harmonizing.
With the historical context established, Yuki delved deeper into his own exploration of umami in the cocktail scene. He took some time to decide on how to create a Umami bitter, considering which umami-rich elements in Japanese cuisine are appropriate for use. He settled on a trifecta: dried bonito flakes, shitake mushrooms, and kombu seaweed. But Yuki elevated this blend further, infusing the aromatic touch of yuzu peels. Yuki shared that it took tons of trial and error to perfect his Umami bitter. Striking a balance became crucial, lest the mixture tilts too far into an overwhelming fishiness.
Yuki shared his thoughts on pairing. The Umami bitters is a bit more robust tasting, so it demands strength and robustness in the drinks it is used in. Yuki recommended using the Umami bitters with spirits that could stand up to its boldness - peaty Islay Scotch or the smoky and earthy mezcal. For those less inclined towards spirits, Yuki suggested the velvety sweetness of a vermouth or robust ales like a porter or even a classic Guinness stout. Umami pairs fantastically with the roasted malt's rich character.
We then moved on to Yuki’s most recent concoctions: the Hinoki bitters and the Sakura bitters.
The Hinoki bitters was first. For context, Hinoki is a type of Japanese cypress, a tree very often used in Japanese architecture. On the palate, it delivered a symphony of wet sandalwood intertwined with the sweetness of caramel.
Hinoki, as Yuki shared with us, is more than just a tree. Traditional Japanese homes often harness the aromatic charm of Hinoki wood. Its distinct, citrus-like aroma fills the living spaces, evoking serenity and a connection to nature. Tasting the Hinoki bitters, to Yuki, reminds him of stepping into a traditional Japanese home. Not only that, hinoki is also tied to Japanese onsen culture because traditional bathtubs are made from this wood, turning every onsen bath into an aromatic experience.
Yuki strongly recommends trying a Hinoki dry martini was his top recommendation. According to him, one of his bartending friend helms a bar at a Four Seasons Hotel, and claimed that the "Japanese Hinoki Martini," using Yuki’s signature bitters, is a top seller.
Finally, we tried Yuki’s Sakura bitters. Yuki admitted that this particular product was not his own brainchild. In fact, it was requested by his customers, especially due to the Sakura or cherry blossom’s position in Japanese culture.
We tasted the Sakura bitters. The aroma was unmistakably floral, transporting us directly beneath a canopy of cherry blossoms in full bloom – you just had to be there to smell it. The palate was very rich, thick and syrupy, and frankly somewhat overwhelms the more delicate floral notes (perhaps diluting this would open the flavours up). Lurking just beneath this sweetness was an unexpected salty depth.
For this bitters, Yuki used a combination of Sakura flowers and Sakura leaves. While the flowers contributed the familiar floral notes, it was the salt-marinated leaves that introduced the contrasting savouriness. In a move that might seem counterintuitive, Yuki opted to retain the salt. His rationale: a touch of salt can elevate a cocktail, lending it both umami and a heightened sweetness.
For Yuki, the Sakura bitters is highly versatile, melding seamlessly into a myriad of cocktails. Whether it's deep brown spirits like whiskey and rum, or the fruity vibrancy of a Cosmopolitan, the Sakura bitters lend a touch of Japanese florals to the glass.
Being a casual home bartender, I asked Yuki a rather practical question: how many drops of these bitters should one add to a cocktail? "Four drops," Yuki responded with a practiced ease, "directly into the cocktail as you're preparing it." He then added, emphasizing the role of sensory experiences in cocktail enjoyment, "Then two more drops right on the top. That's for the aroma."
The Japanese Liqueur
As the evening unfolded, Yuki unveiled for the first time, two of his latest creations – the Yuzu Kosho and Mizunara flavoured Japanese liqueurs. These aren’t cocktail bitters, but are liqueurs.
After establishing a name for himself with bitters, Yuki’s creative spirit took him into the realm of liqueurs to popularise Japanese flavours with a distinct vision. Versatility was paramount. He wanted to create something simple to use by the amateur but also useful to the bartending professional. It had to be easy to make a flavourful drink just by adding soda at home, while also having the depth and complexity required by bartenders in upscale establishments.
Balance was also crucial, and for Yuki, it’s important the liqueur didn't stray into excessive sweetness while using local organic Japanese ingredients.
And so, what better Japanese flavour to experience than the Mizunara Liqueur. The very name evokes a sense of tradition, as Mizunara is a prized Japanese oak used in whisky aging. Apart from Mizunara wood chips, the liqueur is made with several other traditional ingredients: yomogi (Japanese mugwort) and the unique kibizatou (Okinawan millet sugar). A "low-temperature extraction" method was employed, maintaining a consistent 65 degrees Celsius over a 24-hour period to ensure the flavours were gently and fully extracted.
We tasted the Mizunara Liqueur, and it was certainly quite unusual. Tasted neat, it has an aromatic profile that was reminiscent of a traditional Chinese medicine hall, it was an orchestra of flavours from cordyceps to ginseng, and from the tang of salted dried plum to the comforting embrace of mugwort. The palate, consistent with the nose, brought forth a dance of herbal nuances – notably danggui – underscored by the caramel richness of the millet sugar.
But the true flavours are only unveiled when you make a cocktail with this. We added soda to the mix, and the aromatic oak of the mizunara finally shone through, transforming the drink into something reminiscent of a freshly brewed, high-end tea, subtly sweetened by the essence of molasses.
We then moved on to the Yuzu Kosho Liqueur, which honestly confounded expectations. When one imagines a spicy Japanese liqueur, wasabi immediately comes to mind as a flavour element. Yuki considered making a wasabi-based liqueur, but changed his mind because this idea seemed unoriginal. Instead, he decided to chart a unique course and settled on Yuzu Kosho – a spicy aromatic Japanese condiment made from yuzu and chili peppers, often added as a small dap to grilled meats in Japanese dishes to add a zesty kick to the smoky flavours.
Nosing this, we get milder notes of candied citrus and a teasing hint of peppery warmth. But we had a taste of this and were blown away by its spiciness. On the first sip we get a blast of intense spiciness, invoking sensations of potent habanero hot sauces, intertwined with the bitter tang of lemon and the luscious, salty undertones of a well-crafted lemon confit. The lingering spice continued at the back of the throat, a testament to its boldness. This was incredibly spicy, though it isn’t intended to be enjoyed neat.
But pouring some soda water into the liqueur worked wonders. This was transformed into a zesty, mildly spicy yuzu highball drink. The piquant intensity of the liqueur enhances the effervescent soda, and the spice lifted the effervescence, giving an illusion of the soda being extra bubbly. The resulting drink was vibrant, with citrus, honey, peppery and salty notes playfully teasing the palate.
Yuki suggests also pairing this with lager beers, specially those like Tiger or Tsingtao. Apparently, this would turn a lager into something like an ale. Given the journey we'd been on with Yuki's creations so far, it was an experiment worth exploring!
Reflections on an Evening with Yuki’s Japanese flavours
It's not often we get the opportunity to sit down with someone who's genuinely reshaping an industry. Many in the bar and cocktail world view Yuki Yamazaki as a front-runner in his niche, as he stands somewhat alone in his endeavor – bringing authentic Japanese flavors to the realm of cocktail bitters.
For those who want to bring a touch of this genuine Japanese flavour into their homes or professional spaces, Yuki’s The Japanese Bitters are now available on the La Maison du Whisky Singapore website. His concoctions really do introduce a unique Japanese character you can’t quite find in other products. It’s a convenient doorway (or should I say Torii Gate) into the Japanese realm of mixology.