Kenta Goto’s ethereal Sakura Martini is unequivocally the most iconic cocktail on the menu at his eponymous bar on New York’s Lower East Side. But while the cherry blossom–inspired drink represents the epitome of elegance, for umami hounds (like me) there’s a sleeper hit lying in wait that’s equally deserving of the spotlight: the Koji-San.
Made with shochu, mezcal, citrus and celery juice, the cocktail reads like a savory Margarita, though Goto’s intention when he first put the drink on the menu, in 2019, was simply to create a sour with a noticeable undercurrent of savoriness. He reverently named the drink Koji-San, because, he says, “koji is an important ingredient to make shochu as well as other Japanese food staples such as miso, sake, etc.” “Koji” is also a common name for men in Japan, and “san” is an honorific, making the moniker a bit of a pun.
The key to the Koji-San’s allure is how two seemingly different spirits—barley-based shochu from Japan and smoke-laced mezcal from Mexico—meet with conviction in the glass, ultimately revealing that even though they don’t share origin stories, their similarities outweigh their differences. Both are earthy, terroir-driven spirits, and when tethered together via the bright, cooling qualities of celery juice (which, incidentally, also ups the savory factor), the result is a refreshing sour bearing multitudes of intrigue. Once you get to know it—in my case, over the course of many visits over many years—it gets under your skin, like a pop song you find yourself always humming, even though you can’t quite remember the lyrics.
The Koji-San might be the underdog of the menu, but who doesn’t love an underdog? I find the cocktail so delightful that I often crave a glass when I’m not in New York City; and when I am in town, sometimes I break my cardinal rule of bar travel: Never order the same drink twice.