When people ask Toby Cecchini what the secret is to his signature Mai Tai, they’re stunned by his response: Calpico, a cultured dairy drink beloved by Japanese schoolchildren.
Celebrating its 100th birthday this year, Calpico is a convenience store staple in Japan, where its buttermilk-tart, slightly sweet flavor is particularly popular in school lunchrooms. While it’s ubiquitous across the country, it hasn’t quite infiltrated the cocktail sphere, aside from at izakayas, where it is often combined with shochu and soda for a quick highball. Stateside, however, a growing number of bartenders are capitalizing on the natural complexities of the product as a secret weapon to buoy their own creations.
Cecchini, co-owner of The Long Island Bar and The Rockwell Place in Brooklyn, first encountered Calpico in 1995 while traveling in Japan, where it’s known as Calpis. (Asahi, the parent company, rejiggered the name before launching in the English-speaking market in 1991.)
Drawn to its unconventional profile, which he describes as “that lemon-y, lactic tang you can’t quite put your finger on,” he began buying Calpico at Japanese grocery stores back home in New York. He didn’t think to bring it behind the bar, however, until he began perfecting his homemade orgeat in 2010. “When you make your own, it’s very nutty and clean, but the reality is that I also really like that fake Easter candy flavor you get from commercial orgeat,” he says. Splitting homemade and bottled versions veered too far in that latter direction. “Too candy, in a weird way,” says Cecchini. He finally cracked the code by adding Calpico into the equation, mixing two parts in with one part each of his homemade and store-bought orgeats. This hybrid formula has been his go-to recipe ever since.
“It brings a countervailing piquancy, that little sharpness of the yogurt, that just works so gorgeously,” says Cecchini, who also incorporates a small amount into the Japonaise, one of The Rockwell Place’s most popular drinks.
Kelly Brophy, beverage manager of Cheu and Nunu in Philadelphia, loves how the creamy Calpico boosts the botanicals of gin. In her Blue Calpico Chu-Hai, she combines the two with green tea, blue Curaçao and lemon for what drinks like a hybrid between a Blue Hawaiian and a Japanese shochu highball. “Too much [Calpico] and it’s kinda artificial,” she says. “But just enough is kinda artificial in a good way. Like Froot Loops cereal milk.”
For Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez, beverage director of Ghost Donkey in both Las Vegas and New York, Calpico has a lot to offer. “You have the sweetness and the slight fermentation, but also the acidity is really, really nice,” he says. Jimenez grew up drinking Yakult, a similar cultured-milk drink from Japan, but he finds Calpico’s distinct DNA, offering a rich dairy mouthfeel with a slight fermented pucker, better suited for use in drinks. It pumps up the texture of his Burro Tropical, a clever tequila-and-rum Moscow Mule riff, while ensuring its citrus and passion fruit elements aren’t lost. “It really makes sense in a lot of cocktails,” he says.
Calpico, with its sweet-sour profile, has a way of encouraging ingredients to collaborate. “It works as a great emulsifier in a cocktail,” says Masahiro Urushido of New York’s Katana Kitten. “It carries and binds different ingredients—base spirits, modifier, cordials—nicely.” Urushido attributes the popularity of his Panda Fizz, a drink he’s made more than 1,000 times this year, to Calpico and its ability to bolster delicate flavors, like the ripe fruit in Clear Creek pear eau de vie, or the fresh-cut grassiness of the pandan that he incorporates into a syrup.
“Calpico matches well with many types of fruit, and it also adds depth and texture, so the resulting cocktail becomes more complex,” says Kenta Goto, owner of Bar Goto in New York. On past menus, he’s matched it with fresh cantaloupe and honeydew juice for an elegant variation on the Midori cocktail, the Melon Ball; he also has combined it with gin and preserved yuzu for his own variation on the shochu highball. “If I didn’t use Calpico, the drink would just be a yuzu-flavored Tom Collins … refreshing, but expected,” says Goto. At Bar Goto Niban, which he’ll open in Brooklyn next year, Goto plans to use Calpico in a new cocktail alongside shochu, sparkling sake and Crème de Violette.
Cecchini, for his part, wonders if his oddball secret weapon might best be kept, well, secret: “Maybe it’s better that people don’t know.”