After years of celebrating and fetishizing Japan’s bartending techniques, tools, drink styles, bar culture and, of course, its native whisky, U.S. bartenders are primed for its bitters. Enter The Japanese Bitters, the country’s debut bitters brand. Founder Yuki Yamazaki, a veteran bartender, makes the small-batch product at a facility in Tokyo’s Chiba prefecture. (Though some refer to them as “Yamazaki bitters,” they are unrelated to the Japanese whisky brand owned by Beam Suntory.) The first wave of releases focuses on three of Japan’s foundational flavors: yuzu, shiso and the elusive, savory umami.
“What I like about The Japanese Bitters is that they use ingredients that are authentic and quintessential to Japan,” says Kenta Goto, owner of Manhattan’s Bar Goto and the newly opened Bar Goto Niban in Brooklyn. Previously, Goto made his own yuzu bitters, requiring a 12-hour steeping process with the citrus fruit’s cratered peels, for drinks like the Far East Side (with sake, tequila, shiso leaf and elderflower liqueur). Today he forgoes the process altogether, favoring Yamazaki’s formula.
From integrating a citric bite to cultivating mouthwatering notes of salinity in a range of drinks, bartenders across the country have begun to embrace these newly arrived bitters as an essential part of their Japan-inspired toolbox.
Somewhere between grapefruit and orange, Japanese Bitters’ citrusy-floral yuzu expression has a versatility that builds upon bartenders’ excitement about the ingredient, and joins the ranks alongside Miracle Mile’s yuzu bitters, produced in Los Angeles.
Some use it to add a delicate, lemony fragrance to drinks, as at Niban, where it accents a Sidecar variation made with bergamot juice. Elsewhere, it integrates a layer of citrus in stirred drinks, which has an effect akin to a lemon twist in a Martini; at New York’s Japanese-Peruvian restaurant Sen Sakana, it’s the finishing touch for a Tokyo Old-Fashioned. Yael Vengroff of Los Angeles’ The Spare Room adds it to her off menu drink, the Purple Yoshi Sabotage, made with Amaro Montenegro, cinnamon and coconut, saying the bitters add “a surprise element of acidity.”
Similarly, at Simon & The Whale in Manhattan, head bartender Robert Barcelo III is experimenting with both the yuzu and umami bitters in a salted olive oil cocktail, where the former adds “soothing brightness.” Specifically, he spritzes a coupe glass with mezcal and yuzu bitters, yielding a “grilled citrus drizzled with olive oil and salt kind of vibe.” While the drink is still in R&D, the yuzu bitters are a non-negotiable element: “The citrus notes pop out without masking the olive oil notes,” says Barcelo.
A relative to mint and basil, bright green teardrop-shaped shiso leaf is most often used as a garnish for cocktails and sushi; in bitters form, it’s an excellent accent to pungent, grassy spirits like cachaça and some expressions of mezcal. “I put it in everything,” Vengroff says. “It has both savory and herbal qualities, so it’s lovely with agave and gin.” She adds that it complements the herbaceous, verdant notes of some amari, specifically Amaro Montenegro.
At Sen Sakana, beverage director Zachary Gross dashes the shiso bitters into a cocktail made with gin, sake and kombu (a variety of sea kelp), while at Harlem’s Sugar Monk, Ektoras Binikos layers it into drinks that contain fresh shiso, providing extra intensity, as in the Absolut Kelly (muddled shiso, Absolut vodka, mastiha and Becherovka, shiso bitters).
Of course, there are simpler applications too: Simon & The Whale’s Barcelo adds them to classics like Old-Fashioneds and Negronis for unexpected herbal freshness. As Vengroff notes, they’re “a really lovely alternative for folks in smaller markets who don’t have access to fresh shiso.”
If any one of the Japanese Bitters trio is poised to become a bartender favorite, it’s likely the umami flavor. Made with kelp, shiitake mushroom, dried bonito and a touch of yuzu, it embodies the current zeitgeist for savory and salt-infused cocktails. (Toronto-based Bar40 debuted an umami bitter in 2014, although it can be difficult to find in the United States.)
Sen Sakana’s Gross explains that the “pleasant-savory” element provided by The Japanese Bitters is a breakthrough, because so few ingredients that are appropriate for drinks offer this quality. He favors the umami bitters for darker spirits, as in his Mushrooms cocktail, a stirred, dark rum drink accented with fig and mushroom.
“Salt fixes everything,” says Barcelo, who uses the flavor in his aforementioned olive oil cocktail, which, he says, “act as a warm hug” for drinks made with gin or vodka. “My favorite thing about these bitters is the weight of them. They add a sense of completion and roundness to cocktails.”
For Vengroff, the umami bitters are “revelatory. The first time I tasted them I was blown away,” she says, likening the utility to salt in cooking. “I adore using salt in stirred drinks so this can function as an elevated saline solution.”
Binikos of Sugar Monk, who endured a three-month waitlist for the bitters, says they have “an almost bouillon-like quality,” and subtle flavors of fish sauce, soy, mushrooms and yeast, noting, “They won’t work at all in a drink with a sweet profile.” He uses them in the Criss-Cross—a baroque stirred drink made with Svöl Dill Aquavit clarified gazpacho, oloroso sherry and few drops of squid ink—as well as the forthcoming Oh, Lady Be Good!, made with black truffle- and olive oil-washed Arbikie gin and Brennivín aquavit infused with Icelandic moss.
While the Japanese Bitters trio has begun to stretch the boundaries of a market saturated with orange and Ango-style aromatic bitters, Yamazaki has already begun to think beyond the familiar Japanese flavors: Bitters made with hinoki—a species of cypress native to Japan—are available in his local market. Goto, whose bar is known for its Sakura Martini (salted cherry blossom, sake, gin and maraschino), confides that he knows the company is working on a sakura flavor, which he plans to add to his collection as soon as it is available.