Classic cocktails are ripe for riffs and interpretations. That is the case now and has been the case since the invention of cocktails. No one knew that better than Jerry Thomas, “the father of American mixology.” One of his more famous creations is a tweak on an Old Fashioned; the Japanese Cocktail.
History of the Japanese Cocktail
Despite its name, there are no ingredients in this cocktail that make it Japanese. It is the background story that brings to light the name of the drink. The first Japanese delegation to the United States was wrapping up their whirlwind tour of the states, and in June 1860, they stopped in New York. They were staying at the Metropolitan Hotel which was a mere block away from Jerry Thomas’s Palace bar on Broadway.
A translator for one of the delegates was Tateishi Onojirou Noriyuki, aka Tommy. He had a penchant for flirting with the ladies and enjoying life to the fullest. We know this because of the Minneapolis Tribune and David Wondrich for uncovering it (read about it in his book: Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar). A reporter followed the delegation around and to report on their daily activities; one of which was a thirst for cocktails. All of this leads us to the Japanese Cocktail, first published in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 How to Mix Drinks.
Was the Japanese delegation visiting in 1860 the reason for this cocktail? No one really knows but it seems like too much of a coincidence otherwise.
What does it taste like?
Based off of the Old Fashioned, this recipe swaps out ingredients to make a familiar, but altogether different tasting cocktail. Instead of whiskey, there is brandy – or nowadays, cognac – which is made by distilling grapes, as opposed to grains in whiskey. The grape distillate adds more fruit aromas and flavors. And in place of simple syrup, there is the all-too-tasty orgeat, an almond based sweetener. These changes make the drink taste rich with hints of fruit along with a nutty sweetness and thicker mouthfeel.
Where to find Boker’s Bitters
To stick true to the original recipe, you’d need to track down Jerry Thomas’s favorite bitters. Luckily, The Bitter Truth bitters company has made an interpretation of the Boker’s/Bogarts bitters. Bogart’s has “a beautiful mix of dark spice and chocolatey coffee.”
Pronounced or-zsa (as in Zsa Zsa Gabor), orgeat is an almond based simple syrup. The syrup is made with almonds, sugar, and rose or orange flower water. Some manufacturers use bitter almonds or apricot kernels to add a touch of bitterness.