Bitter from the Start: Rediscovering the Japanese Cocktail

Ever since I stumbled on heavily bittered cocktails, I have been hooked. I do very much love bitters. Not only am I known for ordering my soda and bitters with extra bitters, but also for sending said drink back  because it's not opaque enough. Orange juice, lemonades and even soups and fruit compotes are not safe. I  have coerced strangers into accenting their 7 and 7s with a dash or two of Angostura--much to their delight I might add. For me, this almost obsession with bitters all started with the Alabazam. When I first read about it on Jamie Boudreau's blog a few years ago, I was instantly intrigued. And while that cocktail's teaspoon of Angostura bitters pales in comparison to such heavily bittered drinks as the Trinidad Sour and the Stormy Mai Tai, with their whopping ounce and ounce-and-a-half pours of Angostura, respectively, it certainly was the drink that set the stage. Leo Engel first published the recipe for the Alabazam in a time when cocktails called for at most three to four dashes of bitters. Imagine my surprise when I tripped over a cocktail that predates the Alabazam and includes a still impressive half teaspoon of bitters.

It's not what you think. This isn't some often overlooked cocktail that I discovered in the pages of an obscure tome. Not at all. The Japanese cocktail is pretty well known, even if the most recognizable contemporary recipes drastically revise the amount of bitters. First published in Jerry Thomas's Bartender's Guide in 1865, the Japanese cocktail heavily resembles the old-fashioned, comprising a healthy slug of brandy, a sweetener, bitters and lemon peel. It has also been one of my go-to cocktails. The recipe is practically etched in my brain and has been for years--or so I thought. What I never recognized was that the Japanese I knew and loved started out as perhaps the heavily bittered cocktail of its day.

Japanese Cocktail (Jerry Thomas 1865)

1 table-spoonful of orgeat syrup
1/2 tea-spoonful of [Boker's]* bitters
1 wine-glass of brandy [2 ounces]
1 or 2 pieces of lemon peel

Fill the tumbler one third with ice, and stir well with a spoon. [Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.]

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac and B.J. Reynolds orgeat.

* Original recipe carries a typo, Bogart's for Boker's.

While it is hard to know exactly what happened in the intervening years, by the 1887 edition of Jerry Thomas's guide the recipe had already been altered, severely decreasing the amount of bitters. By 1916, the recipe no longer called specifically for Boker's bitters as it had fallen out of production some time in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Certainly, it would be difficult to fashion an 1862 Japanese cocktail without Boker's. Angostura became the natural second choice. However, as Angostura and Boker's bitters are  both considered aromatic style bitters, they are certainly not the same animal. Boker's bitters is less concentrated than Angostura as well as more mellow. Thus, a smaller amount of Angostura can balance out the orgeat. In the years when Boker's was unavailable this all made perfect sense. But what happened between 1862 and 1887 to warrant the change? While this may remain a mystery, perhaps it is time to reconsider the original recipe.

Last year I became enamored with the idea of increasing the amount of bitters in classic cocktail recipes. I had recently acquired several new bottles of digestive bitters and I was keen to play. Considering that the contemporary recipe for the Japanese cocktail calls for such a scant amount of bitters, it just seemed like the perfect candidate. How interesting to find out that after all this time the Japanese was initially envisioned to withstand more bitters. While the extra Boker's bitters does create a more intense experience, the resulting cocktail still tastes very much like a Japanese cocktail, albeit less sweet. Sometimes,history is full of pleasant surprises.

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