Bitters are like salt and pepper to bartenders: A good drink-maker will season cocktails with a shake of bitters to bring balance and lift flavor.
You're likely familiar with some of the most common types - angostura and Peychaud's - but eclectic and artisanal varieties have been flooding the market for years, as cocktail recipes becoming increasingly complex.
The latest addition to a very crowded field still finds a way to stand out. The Japanese Bitters, a company located in Ichikawa City in western Japan, offers an exciting array of bitters that takes a drop or a dash of prevalent tastes found in Japanese cuisine and brings it into the bar.
Creator Yuki Yamazaki, a bartender who has worked internationally, said he has been wondering for a decade, "why Japanese-flavored bitters don't exist across the globe." He spent seven years developing his first three bitters: umami, yuzu and shiso.
Influenced by visits to the Mars Shinsu whisky distillery in the Japanese Alps and the Herman Jansen distillery in the Netherlands, Yamazaki decided to use sous vide in his production after maceration, inspired by the long, low-pressure distillation methods he observed.
His umami bitters, for example, are made by extracting flavor from kelp, shiitake mushrooms and bonito - just as a chef might make stock or dashi broth, but with alcohol. Each apothecary-style dropper bottle comes adorned with a label based on Japanese scrolls, designed and beautifully painted by calligrapher Tetsuya Sagara.
The unique flavors of these new bitters add incredible depth to a global drinks vocabulary. The umami version made my mouth water at first sniff. It tasted brothy, sweet and rich, much like miso paste (although not really bitter at all).
Its savoriness made me reach for dry sherry. I wanted to drink a bloody mary riff - a "bloody sherry," if you will - with tomato, sherry, Tabasco, lemon juice, umami bitters and a cucumber garnish.
The yuzu (a tart, aromatic citrus fruit) has the delicate aroma of zest, with punchy grapefruit notes on the palate. A generous squirt in a gin and tonic brings that classic drink to a very citrusy place.
The shiso (a refreshing, minty leaf) reminded me of a Japanese amaro, so herbal and bitter, without a hint of sweetness. I stirred up a very tasty shiso bijou with Monkey 47 gin (chosen for its herbal complexity), chartreuse, vermouth and two big dashes of shiso bitters.
Justin Park, partner and head bartender at Bar Leather Apron in Honolulu, discovered The Japanese Bitters when he "saw them on the back bar of one of my all-time favorite bars, Ishinohana, in Shibuya, (Tokyo)," he said.
Park loves to make an Old-Fashioned with the bitters: "Swap any of the line in for the classic angostura, and you have something fun and interesting," he said. "Especially the umami bitters - it brings to the cocktail something I've never tasted in cocktails before."
Next restaurant in Chicago - the concept-shifting spot from The Alinea Group - is using all three flavors in highballs on its current Tokyo menu, including a dash of umami in a whisky soda. Try adding them to almost any cocktail for a Japanese twist, like yuzu bitters in a Champagne-based drink, or shiso bitters in a Stone Fence (whiskey, rum or cognac with cider).
Yamazaki is hard at work on two more aromatic flavors to be released soon in the States: Hinoki, made from cypress, and sakura, from the beloved Japanese cherry blossom, will be bringing more lovely Japanese botanicals to the bar.
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com