The changing of the seasons has always meant a great deal to Julia Momosé, partner and creative director of a Japan-inspired bar in Chicago. But this time, emerging from the challenging pandemic year, the spring and summer months carry extra significance.
Of course, the seasonal shift would be front of mind during calmer times, too: “The seasons are so important in Japan,” she explains. In addition to the four seasons familiar to much of the planet, the Japanese also observe 72 “micro-seasons” over the course of the year, which provide an ongoing source of drink inspiration.
At the moment, Momosé is thinking about sakura (cherry blossom) season, which can mean incorporating the bloom as a garnish or ingredient, or otherwise suggesting that sakura mood. “There’s definitely a floral train of thought running through a lot of the drinks right now,” she notes.
This year, warmer weather means increased opportunity to welcome guests to her outdoors-only space, where the seasonal drink list will include the likes of the zesty Two Island Gin & Tonic, made with The Botanist Islay Dry Gin. “It has that really full body, within [which] all these botanicals are nestled,” Momosé says of her spirit selection for this drink. “Depending on what you mix it with, you begin to pull out all these elements of the gin,” from citrus flavors, to floral notes, to any one of the 22 wild Islay botanicals, all hand-picked from the island off the coast of Scotland, used to make the spirit.
The highball is enlivened with yuzu sake and a pinch of salt for complexity, then topped with the bar’s house tonic. “Simple, but with an extra layer, will be the running theme for the spring menu,” Momosé explains.
The season of renewal also has Momosé looking ahead in broader ways. “The pandemic forced me to shut down the bar indoors,” she recalls. “But doing that made me realize I’d been focusing all my energies within the [bar’s] four walls. … Every day was almost like [having] blinders on.”
Momosé quickly realized the importance of the community around her: “the other bartenders, restaurateurs, bar owners, other women in business.” She formed connections around efforts to lobby the state to allow sales of to-go cocktails, and became active with Let’s Talk Womxn, a national collaborative of women restaurateurs.
“My hope—no, my commitment—is that I’m going to be more active in working to make change, to make bars a better place to work,” both for business owners and for staff, she says. She’s also looking forward to not only “welcoming people indoors, but finding ways to support members of the community who may be going through a really tough time,” she observes. For example, she is setting up bystander intervention training for her staff so the team is prepared to handle situations where they see someone being harassed.
Momosé advocates finding ways to raise funds for organizations such as Black Lives Matter or groups working to end Asian hate, such as Stop AAPI Hate, or Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Drink specials are one way to accomplish this on an ongoing basis: “I’ve tried to make sure we have ‘cocktails for a cause’—that’s a line that I’ve used for various causes throughout the pandemic,” she explains. “And it’s something I want to do going forward.”
An emphasis on reducing waste, too, has been part of Momosé’s program from the beginning, but it took on increased meaning during the pandemic, what she describes as “a massive learning point.”
“It’s not just for the sake of sustainability, but also for meeting the bottom line of a business,” she acknowledges. “We’re not bringing in the sales that we used to. And we have to be smart with what comes into the building.” That means finding multiple uses for citrus, for example, upcycling peels from juiced fruit to use as garnishes, to make oleo saccharum, or to flavor citrus stock. This has been a particular emphasis for carry-out drinks.
It also feeds inspiration and fuels recipe development; Momosé anticipates sustainability becoming even more core to the bar’s creative process this year. “I love the idea of partnering with chefs and the kitchen crew and finding out what scraps they might have that I can use for infusions, or for making cordials and the like,” Momosé says. In turn, that can help develop “deep, layered profiles” in sour-style drinks, for example.
As Japan’s late-spring micro-seasons unfold (among them: “peonies bloom,” “frogs start singing,” “bamboo shoots sprout”), Momosé will continue focusing on outdoor service. But she is eagerly awaiting welcoming guests back to the bar when the time is right—in particular, getting to chat with them once again about cocktails, a practice her team encouraged by setting ingredients on the bar top while mixing.
“It invited a guided conversation through the art of making a cocktail,” she notes. “That’s something I’m very much looking forward to.”
To celebrate the spring season, The Botanist is launching an initiative to support local bars and restaurants as they rebuild. For every Botanist & Tonic sold throughout the months of April & May, The Botanist is donating $5 (up to $25,000) to the Independent Restaurant Coalition. The Botanist Islay Dry Gin believes in putting people and purpose in line with profit and comes from one of the only distilleries in the world to be B Corp certified.