THE WAY OF THE COCKTAIL
BY – Julia Momosé with Emma Janzen. Photography Kevin Miyazaki. Illustrations Yuko Shimizu.
PUBLISHER – Clarkson Potter / Publishers, New York.
YEAR – 2021
My first conscious awareness of Japan, for better or worse, was the 1980 American television miniseries, Shōgun. I was a kid aged in the single digits, and I sat through every minute of all five nights. When it first aired, Shōgun was broadcast without English subtitles. Entire scenes were done in Japanese, with only the acting, images, and music to clue non-Japanese speakers into what was unfolding. I was enthralled.
Though the miniseries was filmed entirely on location in Japan, employing excellent Japanese actors, Shōgun was an American production based on a white British novelist’s fictional depiction of Japan. James Clavell’s novel was only loosely based on the historical account of navigator William Adams, who in 1600 barely survived a journey to Japan and ended up staying, eventually becoming the first westerner awarded samurai status. The miniseries, being filtered through multiple western lenses, understandably did not go over as well in Japan as it did in the United States.
As a kid, unaware of the greater sociopolitical implications, my experience of Shōgun was limited to a fascination with the language, the ancient culture (as it was depicted), the architecture, the epic melodrama, and the violence and sexuality rendered with unprecedented candor and seriousness for television at that time. When the show aired again, with a voiceover by Orson Wells added to narrate the Japanese-language scenes, I watched it a second time but with less interest. The voiceover robbed the show of its mysterious directness.
Many years later, fresh out of undergrad, I moved to Japan. Working as an English teacher in a small town called Ota, about ninety minutes by train northwest of Tokyo, I was living entirely on my own for the first time—no friends, family, or other familiarities to fall back on. Communicating, shopping for groceries, doing laundry, taking a bath, everything was new and different for me. I was often the only white person in the room, the store, or on the street. The experience remains among the most impactful of my life. There’s a connection there for me that goes beyond mere travel memories.
So when I was recently perusing my local brick-and-mortar bookstore, Booksmith, and came across Julia Momosé’s The Way of the Cocktail, I was immediately drawn to it. Flipping through its elegantly designed pages, the photographs and illustrations appealed to me. But there are a lot of beautiful books out there. So I read Momosé’s opening essay, “Introduction and Intentions.” Notice that title. Not just Introduction, but also intentions. That simple choice alone told me this was a cocktail book I’d get something more from than recipes.
Momosé grew up in Nara, Japan, born there to a Japanese-American father and American mother. After high school, she moved to New York to go to college. On a visit home to Japan, and now of drinking age, she went to a vintage styled bar in Kyoto and ordered a martini. The meticulous bartender captured her attention and imagination—chiseling the ice by hand, every movement considered, the process as important and as visible as the presentation. “It was so intoxicating just to watch,” Momosé has said. “It was such a gorgeous experience that I thought to myself that one day I want to be able to give back and provide that experience for other people.” Her bartending journey began in earnest.
Momosé has now had many bartending gigs, designed many cocktail menus for Michelin-starred restaurants like GreenRiver (now closed) and Oriole in Chicago, and opened Kumiko, her acclaimed Japanese Dining Bar that Time magazine named “one of the world’s 100 greatest places” in 2019.
So we’re in good hands here.
The Way of the Cocktail opens with Momosé offering a concise summary of her background before articulating the philosophy that guides the book, all her various projects, and much of Japanese culture—the concept and practice of harmony, or wa in Japanese:
Taken literally, it illustrates the way people in Japan value tranquility and cooperation over individual pursuits. It is about coming together to create peace and unity for the greater good, a moral code that sprang from Japan’s agricultural past when farmers had to work closely together to make the most out of the country’s available land.
On an even deeper level, Momosé points out, wa was once the word for Japan itself, not the literal place so much as the cultural spirit, sensibility, and values. No endeavor is too small or insignificant to warrant care and consideration. Gardening, designing cars, teaching math, cooking food, commuting on a train, building a house, helping someone on the street find their way… Everything.
Momosé outlines how wa manifests in the realm of cocktail making in particular, setting up the intentions of the book: It is not simply a list of recipes and anecdotal advice broken up by pretty photographs and illustrations, but a sharing of a work ethic—really, a life ethic—that values generosity in the form of unwavering attention to detail and hospitality. The overarching intention is to honor—the person who ordered the drink, the crafts people or farmers who made or grew each ingredient, the industrial designers who fashioned the bartending tools, everyone involved.
That’s a lot. And it’s very different from the average American bar experience, where one is more likely to receive a cocktail made fast, sometimes even in bulk, everything purely practical.
There are exceptions, of course. Obviously, American restaurants like those that hired Momosé to establish their cocktail menus were interested in offering their patrons something more than bulk-batched Irish Coffees or Mojitos. In San Francisco, Sorella is a fine dining operation where I’ve enjoyed expertly built cocktails that taste fantastic.
But even there, the actual making of the cocktail was not presented as prologue to the experience of the drink itself. According to Momosé, Japanese cocktail bars tend to be quieter, for example, allowing the shaking of the ice and the gurgle of liquids poured from neatly kept bottles into carefully selected glasses to be the melody of the experience. By the time the patron takes their first sip, they’re already on a journey. That opening sip then becomes a welcoming gateway to a sensual passage, leading to the drink’s eventual empty glass.
This is the customer not as king, but as honored guest. That is a very different ethos than what generally guides the American service industry. As customers, Americans expect to be served, having been told they’re royalty. In Japan, customers pay for the privilege of honoring the server who in turn honors them. There is an exchange of money for service, yes. But the emphasis is not weighted there. Rather, an exchange of attention uplifts everyone involved.
If this sounds a bit grand or romanticized, I can say that when I was living in Japan myself, I found these differences startling. With my young American tendency to bulldoze through life according to my own wants, I found myself occasionally causing confusion, discomfort, even offense. Never intentionally. But once outside my usual surroundings, I became keenly aware of my Americanness for the first time. My rhythm, my expectations, how I fill time and space, how I give—or not—my attention to the world outside myself.
Japanese culture and American culture each have their downsides and upsides, like any culture does. But I’d be very surprised if anyone with even only a casual interest in cocktails were to experience one made with the intentionality Momosé advocates in The Way of the Cocktail, and not come away particularly impressed.
In line with this ethos, the book unfolds in three carefully considered parts:
PART I • THE JAPANESE WAY – takes the reader through Japanese customs of eating and drinking, the country’s cocktail history, bartending tools and techniques particular to the region, and the native beverages.
PART II • RECIPES – arranges its contents seasonally. This is another aspect of wa, that seasons are broken down in even more detail than the quarters of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Within each season, micro-seasons are recognized. Cocktails are paired to these micro-seasons with the intention to bring your body into harmony with them. When to serve a dark, warming drink versus a clear, crisp, cool one? What aromas and flavors will complement those of the seasonal weather, landscape, and foods?
PART III • CODA – offers recipes for making homemade cocktail ingredients, resources for finding ingredients and tools, a list of notable bars in Japan, and a bibliography of sources referenced in the book as well as recommended further reading.
I could get into describing individual recipes, extol the beauty of Kevin Miyazaki’s photographs, offer admirations for the clarity of Yuko Shimizu’s illustrations. But those you can enjoy best when you read the book. Here it’s the ethics and intentionality that Momosé and her writing partner, Emma Janzen, have articulated so well that I wish to highlight.
The book compels me to make my way through it slowly, to turn its pages with care. Reading The Way of the Cocktail reconnected me to my appreciation for taking care and consideration in what I do. As a theater maker, I always want the audience experience to begin even as early as the poster. Certainly once they step inside the theater, every moment should contribute to the whole—the lobby, the pre-show music if there is any, the seating and how it’s arranged, the show itself of course, and the post-show moment, how the audience exits and, hopefully, takes the experience with them. I hope to bring this same sense of completeness to the whiskey tastings I facilitate, or, now, the cocktails I might make.
After reading Momosé’s book, for example, I began a search for a unique coupe glass to serve a particular cocktail I had in mind. My glass collection is neat-whiskey centric, so in adding a coupe to my tightly packed shelf I wanted to select one carefully. I enjoyed the search so much, actually, learning about different styles from different eras made for different drinks, I half wondered if I’d experience post-search blues once I found the glass itself!
The journey is the thing—the whole thing, with every moment considered.
3 thoughts on “Book: The Way of the Cocktail by Julia Momosé”
Arigato, Mark. I’m so glad to be aware of this book through your excellent review. I wonder if she put in a section devoted to Mocktails for those of us who love the cocktail concept but can’t handle the high proof alcohol. I am looking forward to the read!
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Hey there! This book does not have an explicit Mocktail section. But I have referred to it for ideas around ingredients and inventing non-alcoholic variations. There are now a few Mocktail books out there, and I’m on the hunt for just the right one!
Yay! Looking forward!