The Japanese alchemist who makes cocktails with family-farmed herbs and a mortar and pestle. By Jethro Kang.
Watching Hiroyasu Kayama – which we did just this Singapore Cocktail Festival – make a drink is like observing an elegant, modern-day shaman at work. With a twirl of his wrists and fingers that jump like a piano player, the bartender-owner of Ben Fiddich in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district puts together a cocktail using ingredients and methods that is perhaps more medicine than drink-making.
First, there’s the inspiration: medical books in English and French that are over a hundred years old, which he mines for botanicals and recipes. Then there’re the ingredients: plants grown on his family farm in Chichibu, an hour outside the capital, like the Japanese gentian senburi, and wormwood.
He macerates the herbs using a suribachi and surikogi, a Japanese mortar and pestle traditionally used to crush sesame seeds, and mixes in a liquor made from koji. Honey and yuzu juice are also worked into the bowl, before the contents are strained into a shaker.
Shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass, the chartreuse-hued drink is vibrant and fresh, balanced between sweet and sour with a slightly bitter bite. This, after all, is still medicine, just made by someone wearing a tie and tweed vest.