Mixologist Masahiro Urushido’s debut recipe book, co-authored with drinks writer Michael Anstendig, is part cocktail book, part memoir. The Japanese Art of The Cocktail tells Urushido’s story while introducing readers to the cocktail recipes he’s created along the way. The final product is a book that embodies the spirit of Urushido’s New York City bar, Katana Kitten, a distinctly Japanese-American establishment that melds the cocktail traditions of both countries to create expertly made and wonderfully playful drinks.
For Urushido, the dream of becoming a bartender wasn’t always clear. The first part of the book chronicles his journey from growing up in the small village of Minowa, drinking his first canned whiskey highballs bought at a local convenience store as a teenager, and then moving to Tokyo to complete high school while working to deliver pizzas and bartend at a karaoke bar. A combination of fate and good luck led him to a job at Tableaux, one of Japan’s most revered fine-dining restaurants at the time, working as a food runner and then barback, slowly ascending the ranks. Eventually, he moved to the U.S. to attend a junior college and began on his journey toward opening Katana Kitten.
Urushido then goes into the robust history of cocktail making in Japan. He explains that spirits were usually served straight up until the country opened up to trade with the U.S., exposing Japan to Western culture, including the American cocktail scene. Urushido also offers lessons on sake, shochu, and Japanese whiskey as well as Japanese bartending, ice carving, and garnishing techniques.
If Anstendig and Urushido’s explanation of rare Japanese whiskies doesn’t make you want to jump on the next flight to Japan, their thorough rundown of the five types of Japanese bars—cocktail bars, hotel bars and izakaya, mixology-forward cocktail bars, and tachinomi—plus their pricing, proper etiquette, and what to expect while you’re there, certainly will.
“There might be some unfamiliar ingredients or some different techniques, but they're well within the grasp of bartenders. The book lays it all out very simply,” Anstendig told me. “We hope people explore them and have fun and make delicious drinks.”
It’s through this medley of recipes that Urushido continues to paint a vivid picture of his life and career. Getting to know the cocktails in this book is getting to know Urushido and all of the people he’s met on his journey so far.
Reflecting on the spirit of Katana Kitten, Urushido writes, “from Japan, we bring exactitude and a relentless quest for perfection, a respect for classic cocktails, combined with selfless hospitality. Into this, we infuse a decidedly American penchant for diverse creativity, unique housemade and garden-fresh ingredients, and a touch of playfulness.”
The best example might be one of Katana Kitten’s signature cocktails and Urushido’s take on the saketini, called the Hinoki Martini. Over the phone, Urushido explained that hinoki is a Japanese cypress tree that is used to make masu, the wooden cup traditionally used to serve sake.
“When sake is poured into a masu, the scent of cypress becomes part of the experience. To re-create this sensation, I had to source the essence of hinoki, which did not exist,” he writes. He and Jeff Lindauer from Spring44 Distilling used cypress trees that grow in the Colorado Rocky Mountains to create a 140-proof distillate that captures the distinct scent of hinoki and transforms it into something you can smell and taste.
Although you won’t be able to create an exact replica of the Hinoki Martini without the essence, the book includes a work-around that uses hinoki wood chips and Everclear vodka instead. And, if all else fails, I asked Urushido to give an extra bit of advice to home bartenders.
If things don’t go as planned, he says, “Just make it the way you like it. Try different things to make it delicious. Enjoy them, enjoy the drink!”