Yuki Yamazaki's line of bitters dubbed "The Japanese Bitters" has a new entry. Just in time for cherry blossom season across Japan, it's sakura bitters.Japanese bitters didn't really exist, even as a category, before Yuki Yamazaki came along with The Japanese Bitters. Though the bitters boom kicked off in the US about a decade ago, it went largely unnoticed in a Japan. The dedication to refining classic cocktails means most Japanese bartenders only stock the classic bitters: Angostura and orange.
But in recent years, outside of Japan, there's been a lot of interest in incorporating Japanese flavors in cocktails. Homemade yuzu syrup, shiso infusions, ume salt, matcha foam, kombucha whatever, bonito flakes. It seems like nothing Japanese is out of bounds. Just wait until they discover inago...
And now Japan's own cocktail scene is finally starting to wake up to the potential of these Japanese flavors. The country's response started with the Japanese craft gin boom. Everyone and their brother is now trying to bring you their local botanicals. Apart from gin, we have the likes of Suntory revisiting their liqueur line. It's a bit of a shame that it took the rest of the world to turn Japanese bartenders on to making better use of local flavors in cocktails. But here we are, better late than never.
Bitters are a great way to capture some of those flavors in a small bottle. My first experience with The Japanese Bitters is back at Gin Live Tokyo 2018. Since then, Yamazaki-san has been traveling around the world promoting the series. He's been quite successful as far as I can tell: not one but two articles on Punch in less than three months. Given that it can be difficult to get your hands on Japanese ingredients in some parts of the world, bitters are an easy shortcut.
And sakura, cherry blossom, is a huge part of Japanese culture. Especially in springtime. At its heart is the Japanese/Buddhist acknowledgement of impermanence; appreciating something fleeting while it lasts. And yeah, a tree that blooms for only a week once a year is pretty damn fleeting!
So across the entire country, people celebrate with hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties, trying to time them right when the trees are in full bloom. 2020 might not be as festive as years past due to coronavirus fears, but I'm certain people will still find ways enjoy the season.
In my case, I don't even have to leave home. Let's add some sakura to a few cocktails and kick into spring!
Review: The Japanese Bitters Sakura
Sakura is the fifth entry to the series, joining yuzu, shiso, umami, and hinoki (cypress). If you're interested in how the bitters are made, there's a brief explanation on The Japanese Bitters official site.
Being bitters, we'll try these in a couple different drinks following the recipes suggested by Yamazaki-san.
Nose: Cherry tree bark and raisins
Palate: Brandied bitter cherry candies, plenty of leafiness, then cinnamon and cardamom.
Finish: More woody spices, cedar and anise
Price paid: 3500 yen, 100ml
Yamazaki-san nailed the sakura flavor quite well here. We've got that bitter cherry base you find when eating the fruit of sakura, plus a bit of woodiness and leafiness reminding you it's still part of a tree.
As with other releases in The Japanese Bitters series though. it's a bit subtle. Don't expect to be blown away with flavor from just a few drops. Even after eight drops, it was a bit tough to pick out in my G&T. I recommend using a more neutral gin, if that's your base of choice.
Whiskey Richard is the founder of nomunication.jp, and has been saying he has lived in Japan for ten years for the past four years. He enjoys drinking basically anything except straight-up Campari.