The Tokyo Sidecar


Having waited an exceedingly long time to try this cocktail, I have finally acquired Yuzu fruit, fresh, and have to say, the joyous blessing of single malt Japanese whisky with citrus and Cointreau is one to be ruminated over and thoroughly enjoyed.

Taken from Yuri Kato’s excellent book, Japanese Cocktails, the Tokyo Sidecar is a variation on that sweet old cocktail, the Sidecar.  The drink calls specifically for Yamazaki 12 year, a Japanese single malt whisky, as well as an ounce of a triple sec such as Cointreau, and a fourth of a teaspoon of yuzu juice; however, since the drink is a sour, I wanted to adjust it a bit, so I upped the yuzu juice to one fourth an ounce, and pulled back on the Cointreau so it is closer to three fourths an ounce.  Personally, this made the drink much more reminiscent of a Sidecar, but with wonderful floral and grain notes, with the delightful tartness of the yuzu coming through carefully balancing the honey notes of the Yamazaki against the orange notes as some sort of strange intermediate flavor.

Yuzu is a fruit that is a cross between a grapefruit and a lemon according to Yuri Kato (Ibid 15).  Personally, I feel it is more of a cross between a grapefruit and an orange, with minor sweet notes reminiscent of a tangerine, but the acidity and tang of the grapefruit pulling back such sweetness so it hides only momentarily on the tongue.   It is rather pungent, so a little goes a long way, but really, a small amount will barely add anything to a drink: another reason why I changed the recipe Kato provides is to create a balance, but to pull forth the elusive flavor that is foreign and strange to someone who has never really experienced the joy that is yuzu.  If the yuzu was left as Kato calls for, the drink would be absurdly sweet; while this might appeal to a Japanese drinker, I would feel that would destroy the taste of the Japanese single malt.  Furthermore, to bring out the aroma of the yuzu, and cross it with the strong malt aroma of the whisky, I used an aromatic expression of yuzu peel, despite the cocktail not calling for a garnish.  Partly, this is due to my fascination with the exotic fruit, but it really does add something to the beverage.

Yuri Kato’s book is excellent since it is not just a enumerated list of cocktails.  In it, she talks about the cocktail culture of Japan, bringing up excellent points about how the Japanese have customs surrounding pairing food and cocktails since the introduction of the Western mixed drink in the country (Kato 9).  Seemingly, it is customary to have well stocked liquor cabinets at home, but not necessarily stocking wine or beer; usually these cabinets are filled with Scotch, Japanese whisky, shochu, and sake (Ibid).

While the Japanese have a strong drinking culture, both at home and through social institutions and spaces including the bar or the Izakaya, the legal structures surrounding drinking have changed, making it so that there are lower BAC requirements and “stricter laws” in order to decrease traffic accidents on account of drinking (Ibid 10).  The changing structures are perhaps indicative of new found drinking problems in Japan, as the introduction of hard and more varieties of distilled liquor appear on the scene in bars and homes, with vodka, rum, gin and tequila, things that mix easily and provide strong alcohol content within a cocktail.   But despite Japanese bartenders working with higher proof foreign spirits, the Japanese still maintain their sentimentality when constructing drinks, seemingly because of the relationship of alcohol to that of a meal.

Like with food, cocktails require fresh, high quality ingredients.  To create a meal for the Japanese palate without balance, but also without aesthetic qualities pleasing to the eye, goes against everything that the Japanese dining experience seeks.  Likewise, improper temperature, rather strong alcohol content, or even large volume are unappreciated and frowned upon qualities.  If we analyze that list of negative qualities, we can see a trend between these qualities and the way cocktails were created in the West in most bars over the last few decades.  This brings to mind an idea that the revival of cocktail culture in the West is not only a return to the past, and a rejection of modern neoliberalism, but it also appears to be a trend towards the Eastern mindset.  I feel that the movement towards fusion cuisine or Eastern restaurants and flavors, as an increasingly popular phenomenon since the nineties, is something which coincides temporally with the beginning of this cocktail rebirth and perhaps assists in Asian mindsets towards food and drink.

Japan is considered one of the world’s largest whisky-producing countries and were taught how to distill whisky from the Scots in the early 20th century (Ibid 55).  These whisky spirits contain a higher level of peat than those of American or Canadian grain eau de vie, so they come off more similar to the Scottish variety of whisky, but lack the characteristic high levels of peat of an Islay, and seem more inclined to be compared to a Lowlands or Speyside (Ibid). The range of whisky in Japan is mostly dominated by Suntory, which is one of the world’s largest drinks companies (Jackson 248).  However, Suntory is not the only whisky producer of Japan.  Japanese whisky has achieved global recognition, in part thanks to the film Lost in Translation, but also Nikka, a rival distillery to Suntory, which saw their whisky classified on the international scene as the “best of the best” in 2001 (Jackson 248, 251).

Historically, the Japanese affair with whisky came out of the interaction between Matthew Perry and Japan in 1853, which saw the creation of introduction of many Western institutions over the following years, since the Japanese believed the UK and the US to culturally be a modern Rome and Athens (Ibid 250).  The Yamazaki distillery was created in the 1920s; the original planning for the Suntory distillery occurred under the guide of Shinjiro Torri, who was the founder of the company; Torri built his empire off of importing Spanish wines and drinks made from Japanese plums (Ibid 252).  While Japanese malt and peat were used partially in the creation of whisky at Suntory, the Japanese have moved towards imports of malt from Australia and Scotland, and peat specifically from Scotland: these are attempts to create an authentic product inspired by the masters of the art form by means of using valid ingredients (Ibid 253).  Yet, while Spanish or American oak is imported to barrel the spirits, the Japanese have been attempting to retain their own cultural and material contributions to the creation of the drink, and so utilize Japanese oak as one of the major choices in aging the spirit (Ibid). 

Tokyo Sidecar:

2 ounces Yamazaki 12 year
3/4 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce yuzu juice, fresh
Shake the ingredients with ice in a shaker tin, and strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with zest from the yuzu fruit.
Jackson, Michael. 2005.  Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide.  New York: DK Publishing, Inc.
Kato, Yuri.  2009.  Japanese Cocktails.  San Francisco: Chronicle Books, LLC.