Funky drinks in new Japanese bars

More Japanese bars in Singapore are serving unusual tipples such as cocktails with dashi syrup and barrel-aged craft beers

The Japanese bar scene here is in high spirits. More watering holes are serving Nippon-style tipples featuring Japanese ingredients such as sakura, yuzu and fermented red rice shaken into cocktails and infused in craft beers.

Over the past three months, at least three Japanese bars have opened. There is Bar Nippon in Wisma Atria's Japan Food Town, which opened in July and specialises in cocktails made with seasonal fruit from Japan; and Takumi Craft Beer Bar in Mandarin Orchard Hotel that brings in rare craft beers and barrel-aged craft beers from Japan.

There is also Cache, a speakeasy bar in Club Street that recently shifted its focus to bespoke Japanese cocktails.

These new entrants join a growing number of Japanese bars such as Coffee Bar K in UE Square that was set up in 2006; JiBiru Craft Beer Bar in 313@Somerset that opened in 2011; and D.Bespoke, a Ginza-style lounge in Bukit Pasoh Road that started in 2014.

But unlike the new bars coming onto the scene, these older ones are better known for classic drinks.

Information technology consultant Nelson Wee, 25, who visited Bar Nippon last week for the first time, says: "I wanted to try the fruit-based cocktails. They were a change from drinking sake in Japanese bars."

Other curious drinkers are drawn to try experimental tipples incorporating unusual ingredients such as fermented red rice and dashi syrup.

Some established bartenders are also coming up with more innovative drinks to keep up with the game.

Mr Aki Eguchi, 35, bar programme director of the Jigger & Pony group, which runs five bars here, says he is focusing on "cocktails with creative concepts".

For example, some of the cocktails at Gibson in Bukit Pasoh Road, one of the bars that he helms, are inspired by places in Singapore such as the Botanic Gardens. The nature-themed drink is made with gin, bee pollen, fermented honey and green apple juice.

He says: "We want to push the boundaries of cocktail-making to the next level."


CACHE

Where: 27 Club Street

Open: 5pm to 1am, Monday to Saturday, closed on Sunday

Info: Call 9678-0027 or go to www.izy.com.sg

Speakeasy bar Cache may have been in Club Street for three years, but you have to be in the know to find it - it is not only tucked away at the back of izakaya restaurant Izy, but is also concealed by a full- length mirror-panelled door.

This is not surprising, since Cache means hidden in French.

The bar serves beers, wines and sake and, in June, it started to go big on Japanese-style cocktails to complement the small bites served at the izakaya.

The 900 sq ft industrial-chic bar seats about 40 people.

It has a menu of more than 20 concoctions designed and shaken up by its bar manager Shinya Koba, 31, who has more than 10 years' experience bartending in Japan.

Popular drinks include the Sakura ($22), a concoction of maraschino cherry liqueur, shiso ume liqueur and sherry, with a sakura flower floating on top; and Yuzu Spark ($22), which is a blend of yuzu liqueur, gin, lemon and prosecco topped with yuzu foam.

Or try the Kumamoto ($22), named after Mr Koba's hometown. He concocted the cocktail to help raise funds for the city, which was devastated by a series of earthquakes in April this year. The cocktail is made with Torikai shochu from the prefecture, crushed pomegranate and lime juice.

The Japanese cocktail scene here is getting increasingly crowded and Mr Koba's game plan is to "make twists on classic cocktails" to stand out from other bars.

For example, he ages negroni, a mixture of gin, Campari and vermouth, in a Japanese claypot for two weeks to make the flavours more well-rounded.

The bar also runs themed promotions to tie in with festivals and major occasions.

For Halloween next month, Cache's bartender Gento Torigata will shake up three cocktails ($20 each) that will get drinkers into the mood.

One of them is Kappa, named after a green river demon found in Japanese folklore.

This luminous green cocktail made of gin, melon liqueur, absinthe, Cointreau and lemon is shaken with mint leaves and then garnished with a piece of eggplant skin shaped like a bat.

And then there is Chi, a blood-red cocktail made from a mixture of dry gin, raspberry puree, maraschino liqueur and rosehip tea which comes draped with cobwebs spun from caramelised sugar.

Mr Koba says Japanese-style bartending is like a Japanese tea ceremony and comes with its own rituals.

So in Japanese cocktails, you will find, for example, crystal-clear ice cubes made from filtered water that is first heated up to 40 deg C and then frozen, hand-cut and, finally, stirred vigorously with a spoon to round their edges so that they melt more slowly.

Mr Koba says: "There are sophisticated drinkers here who appreciate a fine touch like that."


TAKUMI CRAFT BEER BAR

Where: Mandarin Orchard Hotel, Level 5 lobby, 333 Orchard Road

Open: 11am to 1am daily

Info: Go to www.facebook.com/takumibar

Here is your chance to drink five barrel-aged craft beers from Japanese distilleries, which are not commonly found in Singapore.

Takumi Craft Beer Bar is serving beers which have been aged in whisky- and bourbon-infused barrels and which are imported here in small quantities.

The beers include the Shiga Kogen The Far East Barrel Aged Imperial India Pale Ale (IPA), which is matured in whisky-infused barrels for two years for a richer and deeper flavour. The beers range from $21 to $58 a bottle.

Besides barrel-aged beers, the 20-seat bar which opened in June also stocks about 20 labels of Japanese craft beer, six of which are on tap.

Draft beers that are exclusive to the bar include Koshihikari Lager from Echigo Brewery in Niigata, which is made from crushed Japanese short-grain rice that injects a mild sweetness to the beer.

Another is Shiga Kogen Pale Ale, which is produced in the mountainous Nagano region and known for its clean citrus flavour and bitterness from hops that are grown by the brewery.

The drinks are priced from $9.50 for half a pint.

To spice things up, there are also monthly "tap takeovers" during which beers from one brewery flow from all the taps at the bar.

There is one happening tomorrow - beers from Nagano's Yo-ho Brewing Company will take over the six taps for a day.

Among the new brews making their appearances are Umami India Pale Ale and Yona Yona Ale, a hoppy American-style beer.

The bar is run by the team behind JiBiru Craft Beer Bar in 313@ Somerset, a popular hangout for beer lovers over the past five years.

The bars' owner, Eastern Craft Trading, a beer and spirits importer and distributor, opened Takumi in the five-star Mandarin Orchard Hotel to target a more upmarket clientele.

Takumi's general manager Hirose Norihito, 43, says the time is ripe, given the growing interest among drinkers curious to see how Japanese ingredients, such as red rice and sansho pepper, taste in experimental beers.

What also appeals to drinkers, he says, is that Japanese distilleries have a strong reputation for meticulous attention to detail, from the quality of malt to water used in the brewing process.


BAR NIPPON 

Where: Japan Food Town, 04-49 Wisma Atria, 435 Orchard Road

Open: 11.30am to 11pm (weekday), 11am to 11pm (weekend)

Info: Call 6262-3425 or go to www.japanfoodtown.sg

Fruit imported from Japan, such as Kyoho grapes and musk melons, usually have extravagant price tags.

But there is a more wallet- friendly way to enjoy Japanese seasonal fruit and that is in cocktails - at Bar Nippon, a 22-seat bar in Wisma Atria's Japan Food Town.

There, drinkers can choose from six types of cocktails made from fruit imported from Japan.

Japan Food Town is a cluster of 16 Japanese restaurants and bars that opened in July.

Currently, the bar's selection of fruit comprises Furano melons, tomatoes and watermelons from Hokkaido and pineapples, papayas and passionfruit from Okinawa.

The tomato cocktail ($22++) is concocted with ingredients such as Harenohi sake, dry gin and honey and garnished with a basil leaf and black pepper, while the creamy melon cocktail ($25++) has an umami-rich dashi syrup made from seaweed and bonito shaken with Nigori sake, Advocaat (an egg-based brandy) and wasanbon sugar syrup.

The drinks menu changes every three to four months.

With autumn approaching in Japan, expect fruit such as peach, Kyoho grapes and strawberries from next month.

The menu is a collaboration between Japan Food Town and Japanese mixologist Mizusawa Yasuhiko, who is renowned for concocting fruit-based cocktails at Bar Tiare in Tokyo.

At Bar Nippon, the drinks concocted by Mr Yasuhiko will be made by Mr Hirofumi Yamamoto, 29, a bartender from Japan who trained under Mr Yasuhiko for about four years.

On what makes Bar Nippon's fruit-based cocktails different, Mr Yamamoto says: "I noticed that other bars here use a mishmash of fruit juices in their cocktails.

"We focus on one fruit in a cocktail so we can bring out its unadulterated flavours and fragrance."

Most of the cocktails are blended with Harenohi sake, which is usually used as a cocktail mixer because it is less sweet and has a lighter aroma, which complements the fruit juices.

Customers can also enjoy the fruit as smoothies (from $5), fruit platters (from $14) or as parfaits with vanilla ice cream ($15).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 18, 2016, with the headline 'Funky drinks in new Japanese bars'. Print Edition | Subscribe