The Japanese cocktail was one of the first cocktails ever made. One of a handful of cocktail recipes published in Jerry Thomas's seminal cocktail guide, The Bar-Tender's Guide (1862), the Japanese is a wonderful drink that too often gets forgotten. Sure, most cocktail bloggers know it, as well as craft bartenders, but how often do you see someone actually order one. Perhaps the sole reason for this is that the Japanese cocktail is a bit sweeter than many contemporary cocktails. Notoriously in the nineteenth century, drinkers had more of a sweet tooth than drinkers today. And considering how much attention bitter cocktails receive these days, it seems that the Japanese will remain more commonly spoken about than drank.
I find the Japanese cocktail very enjoyable. The combination of the mellow brandy and the nutty, rich orgeat is tremendously extravagant. The bitters here are crucial. Historically the Japanese calls for Boker's, but this is one situation where the presence of aromatic bitters far outweighs the brand choice. It aptly combines sweetness in a inoffensive way, especially in light of its strength--two ounces of brandy is nothing to shake a stick at. After all, it is an early variation of the Old-Fashioned. But no matter how much lipservice I dare give it, the truth is that the Japanese cocktail doesn't get made very much at my house.
2 ounces brandy
1/2 ounce orgeat
2 dashes Boker's Bitters
Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
In spite of its sweetness, something about the Japanese cocktail calls to me. Perhaps I am a sucker for an ancient cocktail, or the fact that it is boozy without seeming boozy. Or maybe it's just that it is so damn velvety smooth. I have the same problem with the Bobby Burns--historically a Scotch Manhattan with a bit of Benedictine in the place of bitters. Every year as Bobby Burns's birthday rolls around I assemble one, enjoy it thoroughly, and then promptly forget it exists. Regardless of how I savor it at the time, I do not crave it. Thus, I never drink them. The Japanese and I have a similar relationship. I love the flavor combination, but almost every time I think of making one, I hesitate. Mood is everything and sometimes all that richness is a turn off.
Then one day late in December, an idea popped in my head--why not make a loose variation to highlight what I love about the Japanese cocktail and downplay the sweetness? So, with a cabinet full of amari, I decided to use bitterness to allay the sweetness. But one amaro after another yielded less than spectacular results. Fernet was too bracing, averna too delicate, and the amer picon was too unbalanced and frankly brought too much orange. But when I tried the Santa Maria with a scant bit of rye, it all came together. As I learned from my adventures with aquavit, sometimes investing in the foundation helps bring a new drink together.
1 1/2 ounces brandy
1/2 ounce rye
1/2 Santa Maria Amaro
1/4 ounce orgeat
2 dashes Spanish bitters
Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with orange oils, but not a twist.
Notes on Ingredients: I used Sazerac 6-year rye, Paul Masson VSOP brandy, and B.J. Reynolds orgeat.