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Japan Enters the Bitters Game

January 20, 2020

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

photo: Lizzie Munro

With home-grown flavors including yuzu, shiso and “umami,” Yamazaki’s line of bitters represents a new frontier for the category.

Does the world really need more bitters? With hundreds of brands and obscure flavors on the market, it would seem not. And yet, The Japanese Bitters, Japan’s first domestically produced bitters company, has proven that there remains potential to stand out amongst the dasher tops.

The Japanese Bitters was founded by veteran bartender Yuki Yamazaki, who left Japan in 2003 to bartend in London and, later, Toronto, where he developed a batch of homemade bitters. After studying distillation at the Netherlands’ historic Herman Jansen Distillery in 2015, Yamazaki returned home and obtained a distilling license through the aid of the Hombo Mars Distillery in Nagano. Today, at a facility in Tokyo’s Chiba prefecture, Yamazaki’s small-batch bitters undergo a two- to three-month maceration in alcohol in addition to a sous-vide vacuum decompression, which ensures more consistent quality from batch to batch.

Yamazaki’s current releases focus on three of Japan’s foundational flavors: shiso, yuzu and umami. Mint-like with a faint aroma of cinnamon, the shiso bitters capture the popular herb’s peculiar grassy flavor, while the yuzu version, with its floral fragrance and sour flavor, lands somewhere between grapefruit and lime. For his umami bitters, Yamazaki employs dried kelp, bonito and shiitake mushrooms to alchemize notes of funky fermentation and a touch of astringency while telegraphing the elusive “fifth taste.” The packaging’s ethereal illustrations of each ingredient and Japanese characters, hand-brushed by noted Japanese calligrapher and painter Sando Sagara, are printed on Japanese paper labels, then wrapped around the simple yet elegantly designed bottles.

“This is a 100 percent Japanese product,” says Kris Elliott, co-founder of High Road Spirits, the U.S. importer of The Japanese Bitters. He is sure to point out, however, that the product was conceived for a global market as a means of introducing fundamental Japanese ingredients and flavors to their respective cocktail cultures.

And while most Japanese cocktail culture still relies largely on Angostura and a few other classic brands, The Japanese Bitters have found their way into some of Tokyo’s top ginza bars, such as Bar High Five, Ben Fiddich and Gen Yamamoto. “This is the first local bitters brand I have ever seen consistently in all of the top bars in Japan,” says Elliott. Stateside, The Japanese Bitters will land in most major markets by early 2020.

The brand’s arrival is in sync with the rituals and hallmarks of Japanese influence that have informed certain aspects of America’s cocktail renaissance. And while it’s unlikely that a single brand will disrupt the bitters market, Yamazaki’s innovations are a refreshing addition to a category that already includes 30 variations on orange.

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