BOOK REVIEW: Delicious Drinks, Impossible Ingredients



By Yuri Kato

(San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010, 96 pp., $14.95, hardcover)

Despite the fact that Japanese people have an entire culture based on enkai (partying with drunken revelry), the traditional crowd of Japanese, no matter how free flowing the alcohol is, relies on a dismal selection of alcohol. The older generation of Japanese drinkers are people who revel in mixing perfectly good whisky with equal parts (or more) ice water. That should be a crime or the true definition of alcohol abuse. Mixed drinks are largely unheard of at most eateries, and a good bar is hard to find and often an expensive venture.

Yuri Kato, however, begs to differ. As a specialist on Japanese spirits from Suntory, she extols the versatility of Japanese cocktails with both old and new mixed drinks. “Japanese Cocktails” features more than 60 unique recipes, many inspired after Japanese sake and shochu. The book offers a number of old-time favorites, such as tamago-zake (a sake eggnog that is often used as a remedy for colds) or mizuwari (watered-down whisky), but Kato also introduces readers to a number of drinks that sound quite new and exotic. Drinks such as Samurai Courage seem simple at first glance but evoke an austere and refined taste through its use of daiginjo (super-premium) sake and a small amount of yuzu juice. Others are much more contemporary, such as the Lady Godzilla, a mojito-like cocktail colored green by Midori, or an Ikebana, a strong Kentucky bourbon-based drink garnished with rose petals.

The book also is filled with information relating to the spirits of Japan. Kato writes on her own experiences in alcohol, as well as the history of Japan’s alcohol industry. Along with the history and the customary methods of production and consumption of these spirits, Kato includes information about the culture of Japan that inspired the various cocktails. She notes that the book, while offering guidance on drinks, also serves as a good travel guide along the way.

Unfortunately, “Japanese Cocktails” relies heavily on exorbitantly priced spirits, and Kato’s preference for ingredients not found in the U.S. also complicates matters. Her preference of gomme syrup over simple syrup is one such major pitfall. Many of the drinks also use yuzu juice, and in some, kabosu juice, as a key ingredient in making the drink distinct from similar Western cocktails. While these citrus fruit juices can be purchased in the U.S., they are in no way cheap or easy to find. While almost everything else featured in this book can be purchased at the local BevMo or an Asian supermarket, a third of the drinks are impossible to create due to their unavailability in the States.

Kato brushes off this inconvenience by considering the acquisition of all the right ingredients as part of the journey to creating a very refreshing drink; at the end, as much as a hassle it is to make a single drink, the taste will be worth it. In cases where the ingredients are impossible to buy without physically going to Japan, Kato advises readers to just go and drink it there.

While enchanting and fun to look through, “Japanese Cocktails” does not seem meant for the casual drinker, something that people might keep in mind before purchasing this book and embarking on any strange cocktail tryst.

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