Why Japan Is the Scene for the Cocktail Revolution

After decades of the same-old drinks, Japanese culture is embracing the craft cocktail

Americans sure know their way around a margarita. Tommy's in San Francisco is regarded as the keeper of the country's best margarita — theirs is made with 100 percent agave tequila, agave nectar, and fresh lime juice. Now, that same margarita is making its way to the shores of Japan to revolutionize the cocktail scene there. "The Japanese are just now discovering tequila," says bartender pro Neyah White, ambassador for Suntory Japanese whiskey. But don't expect those nasty margaritas of the past, made with cheap tequila and too much sugar — "Why should we let [the Japanese] make the mistakes we made in the past?" 

It's why Japan is quickly becoming a hot spot for mixology, and Suntory is forging the way for Japan's bartenders and mixologists to learn from the rest of the world. At this weekend's Cocktail Fiesta in Tokyo, Suntory has invited the world's most known bartenders, including White and New York City's Gardner Dunn, to show the Japanese how it's done. "The cocktial scene in Japan is very much a snapshot of what cocktail culture was in the 1950s [in the U.S.], and it sort of stopped there," says White. "It's been perfected, but it's never moved forward. We're now leading Japan into the future." 

Now, White says, Japan is ready to move into that future, thanks to a burgeoning food and drink scene. "The Japanese are ready to accept the high-end, fresh ingredient, cocktails of now," he says. Plus there's Japan's solid status as a whiskey bigwig. It only takes one look through critically acclaimed writer Chris Bunting's blog, Nonjatta, to know that whiskey is there to stay. 

Related Stories
Discovering Japan's Microbrewing SceneFeeding the Soul to Aid Japan

Of course, what that new cocktail scene in Japan will look like is anyone's guessing game. While White suspects the major ingredients (cassis is big, he says) and cocktails of today (the high ball was revived about five years), the market in Japan is so massive. "Tokyo has 40 million people — that's double the size of New York City, and quadruple the size of New York City proper," he says. "To say that there's one overriding trend is hyperbole at best." Still, that's what makes it all the more fun to see what Japan will bring to the mixology table.