Japanese Cocktail Culture

Ben Fiddich Bar.jpg

Ichigo ichie is a uniquely Japanese concept translated to mean “one opportunity, one encounter.”  It’s rooted in Zen Buddhism to capture the idea of treasuring every encounter because every encounter is unique and will never happen again. 

This sounds like a serious, weighty philosophy.  How does this apply to cocktails?  Good question!

If you have the good fortune of being a guest at a Japanese craft cocktail bar – the best ones are in Tokyo, but we’ve got some great ones stateside – you can get a sense of this concept in action.

Japanese craft cocktail bars are often setup like American speakeasies.  First off, they are typically difficult to find.  Often located in the bowels of a nondescript office building or through the back door of an unconnected restaurant.  Thankfully, there’s no key or gimmicky password you need to enter, you just need the know-how to find them – which often is part of the fun.

Once you find these hidden gems, you must check your frenzied life at the door and let yourself be transported to a place of calm and serenity.   The owner (who is also typically the bartender and host) greets you as if you’ve stepped into his home.   The intimate, dimly lit space usually fits 15 guests or less.  Soft sounds of jazz are likely playing somewhere in the background, setting up a space of hushed tranquility.  Here, you are now in another world, detached from your daily troubles.

Like sushi restaurants, these bars embrace the concept of omakase (where you leave the menu up to the chef).   It’s traditional that you leave it up to the bartender to create your drink based on what spirit you prefer.  To make it a little easier on the bartender, you can throw in a couple of other ingredients you like for added inspiration.

Cocktail craft, like sushi making, is a high art in Japan.  And like sushi, it’s an art form that’s handed down from teacher to apprentice and takes years of hard work to master.  That could be because the Japanese approach to cocktails is nothing short of perfection.  It’s obsession with detail, form, and consistency.  It’s not only art but theater.  The fluidity of hand motions, with no wasted movements, leading to the final presentation is beautiful to watch.

So how does ichigo ichie relate to Japanese cocktail culture?  It’s often evoked by Japanese bartenders as a philosophy that drives their approach to hospitality.  In other words, this moment between you and the host is a once in a lifetime moment, never to happen in this exact way again.  Therefore, the bartender feels it is his duty to make your experience perfection.

Authentic Japanese cocktail bars aren’t too common in the U.S., but one of our favorites is Angel’s Share in New York City.   It’s tucked into the back of a frenetic restaurant, but you’d never know it once the door shuts behind you. With jazz playing in the background, this small bar makes awesome cocktails and will help you leave your worries at the door.

However, if you’re looking for the real deal, board a plane to Tokyo.  We recommend a visit to Ben Fiddich in the Shinjuku section.  Dark and serene, this wood-clad bar could fit into the living room of the typical American home, but the small size adds to the coziness and hominess of the place.  The cocktails that owner/bartender Hiroyasu Kayama makes are objects of desire. Mixing delicious potions, tinctures, spirits and local herbs, Mr. Kayama is a wizard in a bespoke dinner jacket. Ichigo ichie indeed.