One morning in April 1949, Gen. Douglas MacArthur strode into a bar in Tokyo and was appalled by what he saw. Hundreds of his soldiers were swilling fancy cocktails before they’d even had lunch. Meanwhile, the Japanese people were living on food rations. MacArthur, trying to carve out Japan’s political and economic future post–World War II, knew this spectacle was poor optics. He did not hide his displeasure.
He also, unwittingly, paved the way for the creation of a classic Japanese cocktail.
The bar in question was at its peak. Back when it opened in 1922 inside a high-society social complex called the Tokyo Kaikan, the space had five bartenders on the payroll. Post-war, commandeered by the occupiers and rebranded as the American Club of Tokyo, a staff of 40 bartenders frantically mixed cocktails for sometimes more than 1,000 enthusiastic drinkers.
After MacArthur’s admonishment, the partying died down. Then one of the bartenders had an idea: camouflage a Gin Fizz to look like a wholesome, daytime-appropriate glass of milk. It’s the standard Gin Fizz recipe (gin, lemon, sugar, soda) but with an ounce of milk and the soda dialed back to just a splash.
The bar at Tokyo Kaikan has been serving its take on the Gin Fizz since 1949.
Guests could secretly order it as the “Morning Fizz,” and soon enough, the bar was busy again, with a new drink of choice for the daylight hours—and it caught on with locals, too.
Seven decades on, you can still find people sitting in that same bar, sipping what is now called the Kaikan Fizz, from as early as 11:30 a.m. Head bartender Eiji Takayama has been mixing them there for 43 years, and while the drink’s raison d’être has long since vanished, he says the Kaikan Fizz is as popular as ever. “People read about it in magazines or books and come to find out what it tastes like,” he says.
That’s roughly how Manabu Ohtake first encountered the drink. He was a 22-year-old novice hotel bartender in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district when a customer told him about it. Intrigued, he headed to the Palace Hotel to try it. The venue had opened in the early 1960s, just before the first Tokyo Olympics, and the owners asked the era’s most famous bartender, Kiyoshi Imai, to run the bar. Imai had been working at the Tokyo Kaikan for more than a decade and, depending on which account you believe, either invented the Kaikan Fizz or took the recipe with him when he moved to his new job.
As fate would have it, when the Palace Hotel was razed, rebuilt and reopened in 2012, the owners asked another celebrated bartender, Manabu Ohtake, to lead the bar.
An ounce of milk and a dialed back portion of soda distinguishes the Kaikan Fizz from a classic Gin Fizz.
Ohtake now trains people to make the drink that is listed on his menu as the Palace Gin Fizz, and he says the key to making a successful one is all in the shake. “You have to shake very well, and for quite a long time,” he says. “You need to put a lot of air in, otherwise the lemon will cause the milk to curdle.” He uses a three-piece shaker, the choice of most senior Japanese bartenders, but says younger bartenders can’t aerate sufficiently with that tool, so he recommends using an “easier” two-piece shaker.
If “shake long and hard” plus “Gin Fizz with dairy” sounds like it necessitates a 15-minute Ramos Gin Fizz shake, it should be noted that Ohtake’s shake lasts less than 30 seconds. After mixing and aerating, pour the drink over ice in a highball glass, agitating vigorously with a bar spoon as you pour. Then top with soda.
Ratios vary significantly by bar. On home turf in the Tokyo Kaikan, Takayama sticks to the original recipe of an ounce and a half of gin, an ounce of milk and a bar spoon each of sugar and fresh lemon juice. Ohtake’s version is sweeter, with the same amounts of gin and milk, but half an ounce of syrup and a touch more than that of lemon. And a few blocks east in Ginza, Tokyo Kaikan alum Takao Mori and his protégés make a drier version with a recipe that looks fearsome on paper but is impeccably balanced and dangerously quaffable: more than two ounces of gin, an ounce of milk, three bar spoons of syrup and two of lemon. For those who wish to honor the original intention, he serves them from noon in Mori Bar.
These days in Tokyo, however, daytime drinking is so commonplace that there is no longer a need to disguise an alcoholic drink. Still, the Kaikan Fizz has survived because it is a refreshing, delicious cocktail, and with its simple construction, anyone can mix the fizz that MacArthur never meant to invent.