A Whisky & Umeshu Cocktail
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It’s been too long since I posted a cocktail! Fortunately, I’ve got this little group of friends that likes to get together (virtually, anyway) to publish a whole bunch of lovely drinks all at once. With that much-needed kick in the pants, I got brainstorming a few days ago and decided to do something with all of the Japanese plum wine (umeshu) I’ve been making. Yes, making – more on that in an upcoming post. It’s July, and it’s hot, so I wanted to go in a decidedly refreshing direction. Something bubbly. But I’m also a big fan of bold flavours, so I didn’t want to go too light and airy. I closed my eyes and imagined a nice tall bar glass full of ice and the idea started to come together. Whisky, umeshu, sparkling soda water, and ginger: the Ume Highball.
Let me tell you a bit about what you’re getting into here. Despite the whisky (hard liquor) and umeshu (a moderately high-alcohol liqueur), this is a surpisingly light drink. Japanese highballs in general are meant to be easy-drinking and perfect with food – sort of like beer, actually. It’s a lot like a gin and tonic, in a way. Crisp, not too sweet, and probably a little easy to overdo it on.
If you’re already sold on the recipe – great, have fun. Jump to the end and get mixing. But despite the simplicity of this cocktail’s ingredients, there’s a whole lot of interesting story and culture behind it. So while I’m going to tell you all about how to make this in the Recipe Notes (including tips on the alcohol, mixing, and information about making your own umeshu), I want to start out with bang.
Booze & Guns
Yes, booze and guns. Are you picturing a lawless saloon in some dusty American frontier town? Well today’s recipe (and this little tale of mine) certainly owes some debts to that time and place, but the heart of this story actually begins an ocean away, and several centuries earlier.
Cocktail culture is huge in Japan, and a wonderful example of how the food and drink continue to evolve across cultures and borders. As this great read from Japan Times will tell you, Japan took an interest in the bar-based cocktail culture of the West and really ran with it, developing new techniques, barware, and recipes that have since spread to the rest of the world. The story is a fascinating one in its own right, but I’m particularly interested in it because this kind of thing has happened in Japan far more times than many people realize.
Japan famously closed its doors to the world in the early 17th century by enacting sakoku – a foreign policy defined by extreme political and trade isolation that would remain in place for over 200 years. Sakoku (and the Edo period) ended rather dramatically with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s black ships in the mid 19th century. The USA (and the rest of the world) had been pushing for Japan to open up to foreign trade, but Japan hadn’t budged much until Perry’s demonstration of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ made public just how far the military might of the West had advanced during Japan’s isolation. The nation was rudely awakened to the fact that its military might had fallen dangerously far behind – and to a number of countries with some rather aggressive policies of expansion and imperialism in Asia, no less. But Japan hadn’t fallen behind due to some deficit of ingenuity; Japan’s isolated Edo period was overall rather peaceful, and without wars to fight, there was not great need to advance the means of warfare. In fact, before closing its doors to the world, Japan had done a rather stellar job of keeping up with (and even surpassing) the Joneses as far as technology and warfare were concerned. My favourite example of this (which we’ll call keeping up with the Joãos, because I am unrepentant about my devotion to Dad Jokes) involves the Portuguese and a whole lot of guns. And, much like cocktail culture, it’s also a prime example of Japan’s long history of taking a good idea and really running with it.
In 1543 a small group of Portuguese adventurers found themselves on a Chinese junk being battered by a storm. They made landfall in Tanegashima, in Japan’s far south. This was the first time that any Japan had ever encountered Europeans (and vice versa), so the entire affair was understandably quite notable. A whole lot of very interesting things were set in motion as a result of this introduction, but today we’re going to talk about one thing in particular: guns. Japan was familiar with gunpowder and simple cannons (both Chinese inventions, after all) but the matchlock muskets carried by the Portuguese could do a lot more (and much more effectively) than an iron cannon could. The young lord of Tanegashima, Tokitaka, was quite interested in the Portuguese guns, and purchased a pair of them. He immediately had his swordsmith begin working on understanding, copying, and refining the weapons. There were some hiccups initially; the Japanese smiths couldn’t sort out how the helically-drilled bore on the barrel worked, so they imported help in the form of Portuguese smiths. But once they’d ironed out the wrinkles, Japan was off the races. The gun’s importance and efficacy were immediately recognized, and within 10 years of introduction, a whopping 300,000 ‘tanegashima’ guns had been manufactured in Japan. In fact, at one point it’s likely that Japan was producing more guns than any nation in Europe. Not only were the Japanese making a lot of guns, they were making them very well; the tanegashima guns were of extremely high quality, and came to be accompanied by a number of innovations meant to improve their utility on the battlefield. These included lacquered boxes over firing mechanism (to keep the powder dry), fixed ropes to allow the guns to be fired at the correct height during the night, increased bullet and barrel sizes, bamboo reloading mechanisms (hayago), and more. By the 1560s, the gun’s value on the battlefield (and there were an awful lot of those in Japan at the time) had become undisputed. In the 1570s, Oda Nobunaga (and later his retainers Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu) began the military campaigns that would eventually unify Japan, and the innovative and relentless use of firearms had a great deal to do with their success. It was this unification that eventually led to the closing of Japan’s borders, a sharp decrease in internecine warfare, and a greatly diminished role for the gun. But the idea of taking a good idea and making it Japanese was not lost during sakoku. After opening to the West in 1854, Japan began rapidly modernizing it’s military and infrastructure. By 1880, Japan had it’s own high quality modern rifle – the Murata – meaning that it no longer needed to import European weapons.
The Japanese Highball
Of course guns aren’t the only thing that Japan adapted and ran with. There are plenty of examples of this concept to be found in Japanese cuisine too. I mean, this is a food blog after all – I had to get back to food sooner or later. Ramen, tonkatsu, pizza, pasta, and curry all found their way to Japan as foreign foods, but each one received a wholesale Japanese reimagining. Of course this kind of culinary adaptation is not unique to Japan – people all around the world recognize a good idea, and success tends to come to those who can satisfy the regional interests and demands of their customers and clientele. Japan, however, tends to attract international attention because of the way in which these ideas are pushed, polished, and perfected. Good enough is rarely good enough in Japan, with craftsmanship and care constantly emphasized (to the point of being culturally ingrained) in nearly every walk of life. It’s hardly a surprise then that cocktail culture is treated the way it is in Japan. After all, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing very, very well. But as with the history of the Japanese gun, the history of the Japanese cocktail is a fascinating one that bears investigating. I don’t want to go into a whole lot of detail here as the Japan Times article I mentioned earlier really does a wonderful job of looking at the fascinating history of the cocktail in Japan (you should go read it – I’ll wait). Japan’s earliest Western-style bars were every bit as seedy and unrefined as the saloons you’d picture in a spaghetti Western. But that’s hardly surprising, as they were built specifically for foreigners, and had no interest in serving locals. In short, they were places for traders, sailors, and foreign merchants to go and get drunk. But in 1874, Yokohama’s International Hotel began serving actual mixed drinks – even to the occasional local. Things took another turn in 1890 at Yokohama’s spectacular Grand Hotel. It was then that an experienced barman named Louis Eppinger took over management, and the cocktail culture associated with the hotel truly began to flourish. Eppinger, it’s worth noting, had run a slew of bars all across the U.S. before coming to Japan – and rather successfully (he’d been quite a bit less successful on the stock markets, which may explain why he was making a go of it in the land of the rising sun). As with most of the beautiful Western-style hotels in Asia at the time, the clientele at the Grand was largely foreign – but the staff was Japanese. Eppinger’s many students and disciples disseminated the craft of the cocktail across Japan. There’s a great deal more to the story of course, and I don’t really have time to touch on how the innovations that now define Japanese bar culture (hand-carved ice balls, for example) took hold. To sum it up in a painfully brief way, Japan did what it does best: it took cocktail culture and made it into something distinctly Japanese.
Which brings us to the Highball. Or more specifically, the Japanese Highball. Highballs – of the universal variety – combine a strong alcohol base with a non-alcoholic mixer to make an easy-drinking, thirst-quenching cocktail. They’re simple to make and universally enjoyed – which is why the Japanese take on them is particularly interesting. It’s not that Japanese highballs are more complicated or loaded up with unusual ingredients, rather they’re distinctive because of the care that goes into making of them. ‘Meticulous’ might be a good word to use here. Different bars and barkeepers will specify the size of the ice, that techniques used to stir, and of course the precise nature and quantity of the ingredients. I’m (clearly) not an expert in a trendy Ginza bar – but I’ve still done my best to give you the details needed to craft my particular highball recipe. After all, detailed recipe notes are kind of my thing. But if you’re concerned that you might not be up to the challenge, don’t be afraid to take a relaxed approach to things. This is going to be good no matter how you mix it. In fact, it’s probably time to mention the other reason Japanese highballs have become so distinctive and popular – because they’re also wildly popular prepackaged in cans. Yep. Innovation is a crazy thing.
This is a pretty straightforward cocktail to make, so we’ll keep things very brief here. Umeshu is frequently called Japanese plum wine, though that’s something of a misnomer, as ume fruits are actually a type of apricot. Regardless, it’s very popular in Japan and fairly easy to find at well-stocked liquor stores. It can be made at home too, but that’s a subject for another article.
You can use any whisky you like here as long as it’s not too peaty. Because this is a cocktail, it’s well suited to blends as well as young or less expensive whiskies. I used a nice Canadian rye – the spice notes pair well with the ginger and the sweetness of the umeshu. Bourbon and highland whiskies are lovely too, and will lend their own distinctive characteristics to the cocktail.
Highballs are a classic and simple cocktail, but as I mentioned above the Japanese cocktail scene takes pride in their careful assembly and elegant presentation. I’ve given a few details about my method for crafting this recipe, but I encourage you to make it your own.
Connecting Over Cocktails
As I mentioned above, this cocktail was part of a collaboration with a wonderful group of Canadian food bloggers. Each of us has published a new drink today, and there’s plenty more delicious perfect-for-summer cocktail delight to be had. I hope you’ll check out their drinks (shown along with my cocktail in the picture below), and their sites – these people are incredibly talented, and I’m happy to call them my colleagues, and my friends.
Dana at Killing Thyme has a fantastically summery Cooling Cucumber Mint Gin Fizz
Samantha from My Kitchen Love has crafted a wonderful Blackberry Mojito
Justine from Justine Celina has an incredible sounding, wonderfully evocative Japanese Lilac Gin Lemonade
Jessica from Cooking in My Genes has summer in a glass for you with a Strawberry Lemonade Rosé Punch.
Go and check them out, and maybe try one or four. Why not, right? Hmm, that could be the highball talking. Well, regardless – have fun.
Til next time – Cheers.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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A refreshing and bold cocktail honouring the Japanese love for the whiskey highball, this variation features whisky, umeshu, soda, and a little ginger.
- 1 oz whisky
- 1 oz umeshu
- 1 tsp ginger juice (from crushed or grated fresh ginger)
- 3.5 oz soda chilled
- ginger thinly sliced, to garnish
Prepare the ginger juice by grating a portion of fresh ginger and squeezing/straining out the juice.
Fill a tall glass with ice (I like a nice crushed ice here, but it does tend to melt fast - use large pieces if you're looking for a slow sipper). Combine the whisky, umeshu, and ginger in a small glass or cocktail shaker and pour down the side of the glass (rather than over the ice itself).
Top with soda, once again pouring down the side of the glass. Stir gently and garnish with a ribbon of thinly sliced ginger. Serve immediately.
You can use any whisky you like for this as long as it's not too peaty.
Umeshu is quite popular in Japan and is generally fairly easy to find outside of Japan.