I like cocktails. The fresher the accompanying ingredient, the better. Cocktails are perhaps the only way I consume spirits.
They say you never forget your first. Sentimental creature that I am, my favorite cocktail bar is still the first one a friend took me to. It was also where we hung with the guitarist from Guns & Roses after a show. I remember it, because we both ordered virgin cocktails. It is not the fanciest cocktail bar in Tokyo, but it is my mate’s secret spot, and we all promised to keep it low key. Attachment provides strange comforts.
I developed a thirst for Gen Yamamoto’s cocktails when I heard rave reviews from friends and read the menu on his site.
Gen Yamamoto’s bar sits in the low rise Azabu Juuban neighborhood of restaurants and bars that provide reprieve from the rowdier Roppongi just one station away. I tried my luck a couple of times, walking over after dinner from my regular izakaya nearby, but it was always full house. Finally, when some friends were visiting, we made a reservation.
J found the minimalist entrance
We enter the cozy space and are greeted softly by Gen Yamamoto, and his one lone guest, both in English. This is a bar where the focus is on the drinks, and time is spent largely anticipating each unexpected concoction, or enjoying the drink. A large oak wood counter that seats eight connects the mixologist and his guests. We take our place and ask to start with the four cocktail tasting menu.
Gen Yamamoto emerging to make his magic
He recognized Ukes and remembers what he last served, although it was a few months back. The menu changes with the season, but he is able to create bespoke cocktails upon requests, within the means of his agrarian ingredients. Later in conversation, we learn what we already heard, that he had spent some years in New York creating fruit and vegetable based cocktails at restaurants before moving back to start his own bar. He had worked in a Kaiseiki restaurant, and his tasting flight follows that experience, serving up each course in beautiful glassware by Japanese craftsmen. He works delicately on our drinks with skillful movements before presenting each of these following delights.
Yellow Mandarin from Shizuoka Prefecture, Rice Shochu and Daikon Bites
Up first was the refreshing concoction of fragrant, (almost like Yuzu, but not) Yellow Mandarin, Rice Shochu and crunchy raw Daikon pieces.
Winter Tomato with Shiso and Lithuanian Rye Vodka
I was pretty excited for this one, forgive the shaky picture. As with every drink, he informs us about the ingredients so we know the composition of each surprise. The fresh tomatoes are from Kochi prefecture.
A warm apple cocktail
He announces a warm cocktail next – an intriguing mix of fragrant Hokkaido apples and sweet potato shochu. I thought this might have been my favorite course… until I tasted the next one.
Kabocha Squash Milk with Chestnut Shochu
But this turned out to be my favorite! Like a lovely dessert, the perfect consistency of milky squash and alcohol against a slow melting perfect piece of ice. It was absolutely delicious.
We asked about the sprig of Sakura (as they had not bloomed in Tokyo yet), they are early Sakura flowers from Shizuoka prefecture.
He shows us the shochu bottle
While admiring the bottle at the end of our courses, J decided to try the ginger drink that the party next to us was having. With the tasting menus, there was very little alcohol and the portions were small. We wanted more, and asked if we could expand our flight of four to the flight of six instead. He obliged.
Kochi Golden Ginger, Spices, Rosemary and Bayleaf with Gin
At course five, we were still going strong. The ginger was very present amidst the accompanying spices, but light.
Kiwi with Matcha and Shochu
The final course was suitably served with green tea. Shizuoka Kiwi with stunning matcha, cream and sake.
There was a cover charge of 1000yen slapped on top of the menu prices, so I can’t say this was exactly reasonable, but definitely a memorable experience for a variety of reasons.
The Japanese ingredients and artful aesthetics were the star draw for me, while the mixology and variety of alcohol might be more interesting to others. He has plenty of vintage whiskies to taste after, like this rare Karuizawa vintage, no longer in production.
If you visit Tokyo, drop by at the address below and share what seasonal specialties you experienced there!
Reservations, as always, recommended. Credit cards accepted.
Bar Gen Yamamoto
Open: Tue-Sun, 3 p.m.-midnight (Sun until 11 p.m.)