Photos by Kiely Ramos
Matt Wilce sips his way through Tokyo'
Hemingway once said that the best way to make a martini was to let a ray of sun pass
through the vermouth and hit the gin. Churchill was famous for turning towards France and
nodding in respect for the missing ingredient when he would order his "naked."
Roosevelt went to opposite extremes. His drink was always mixed with Argentine vermouth
and spiked with olive juice - known as a "dirty martini" today.
Almost more of a statement than a cocktail, the classic martini has been the preserve of
discriminating drinkers whose preferences of gin or vodka, degree of dryness, method of
mixing and garnish reveal volumes about their personalities. For the last hundred years,
this stiff cocktail was a favorite of aging, stateside elite and an uncommon sight here in
Tokyo. But recently the martini has become more democratic. The young and vogue have
adopted this classic, suavely sipping away in chic urban watering holes across the globe.
Undeniably, the fashionable take their cue from the silver screen, catwalks and boob tube,
and this cocktail revival is rumored to be the work of Sarah Jessica Parker (a.k.a. Carrie
Bradshaw), sex kitten and columnist extraordinaire from the TV series "Sex and the
City." Parker's poison of choice is an effeminate version of the original, tinted
pink with a splash of cranberry and lime and sweetened with a drop of Cointreau: the
cosmopolitan. The "cosmo," as it's affectionately known in certain circles, has
spurred a seemingly endless run of spin-offs that have made the stiff old-timer easier to
swallow. Churchill and Hemingway would no doubt turn up their noses at modern takes on the
original, although FDR, a sloppy mixer who experimented with anisette and fruit juices,
might have been game.
Perhaps following Sarah Jessica to Japan - "Sex and the City" now runs on WOWOW
- martinis and their cool cousins are appearing in the hands of mod Tokyoites all around
town. Since it's our sworn duty to identify, analyze and verify trends in this megalopolis
- and being cocktail connoisseurs to boot - we set off on a search to find the perfectly
put-together version of this classic drink and catalogue the latest, tastiest renditions
to make it to Tokyo bar menus. Toiling into the wee hours at the city's drinking
establishments, we made our way to the bottom of many martinis - both mangled and
magnificent - to bring you a list of the best spots to get them.
As connoisseurs know, the trick to great martinis is the quality of the gin or vodka.
Top-shelf vodkas-Dutch Ketel One Vodka, which seems to be all the rage Stateside but is
elusive in Tokyo, Stolichnaya Cristall or Smirnoff Black at the very least-produce the
smoothest martinis, but for a touch of fire try Polish Zebrovka (it means bison; look at
the label). With gin it's the blend of botanicals that counts, as well as strength. Bombay
Sapphire is a popular choice, with its mix of ten botanicals in a recipe that dates back
to 1761. The usual strength of gin is 37.5 percent alcohol, but many premium gins come in
at 41.2 percent - "mother's ruin" is strong Plymouth Gin, reputedly the base for
the original martini and a favorite of Churchill, FDR and Ian Fleming.
The other vital ingredient is vermouth-a white appetizer wine flavored with up to 40 to 50
different berries, herbs, roots, seeds and flowers that takes about a year to make. The
most famous brand of vermouth is, rather aptly, Martini & Rossi and asking for a
martini in Europe will elicit the question "red or white?" and produce a glass
of vermouth on the rocks or with lemonade. The Martini brand was founded in 1847 and its
shared epithet with the cocktail seems purely coincidental.
Debate rages over the martini's origins, although Barnaby Conrad III claims in "The
Martini Book" that the drink was first mixed back in 1896 in New York under the
moniker Marquerite Cocktail. Others claim the name comes from "Martinez" and was
created for a thirsty miner, on his way to the town of the same name, in a San Francisco
bar, or that it was first mixed in Julio Richelieu's Salon in Martinez, California.
Whoever first shook or stirred gin, French vermouth and aromatic bitters is academic - one
thing's for sure: as the '90s revival has proven, martinis are the ultimate cocktail.
|Get that cosmopolitan feeling with
the swinging crowd at gmartini's
Our first port of call was The Old Imperial, which two good-time girls and fellow martini
lovers recommended. Heading into the lobby, we experienced a time warp moment due to the
remnants of kitsch '70s décor - we're always a little dubious of sitting under the
"chandelier" lest the Big One strikes - which is a reminder of the tragic
deconstruction of Frank Lloyd Wright's 1923 design. The only remaining evidence of
Wright's Mayan temple original, which famously survived the Great Kanto Earthquake but
fell afoul of the construction laws in the '70s, the Old Imperial Bar is naturally a Tokyo
institution. Sitting at the bar in an individual pool of light or at one of the roomy
tables, this is the place to relax with an extremely well-mixed martini. We kicked off our
tasting with a couple of classics - a Smirnoff Black martini (JY1200) and a Bombay
Sapphire martini (JY1300) - and a stinger in the form of a Zebrovka martini
(JY1300). All were suitably served and the request for extra olives was fulfilled without
fuss. A wide selection of gins and vodka also made ordering easy.
High and dry
Modern-day movers and shakers, and the odd movie star, sip cocktails at The Peak Bar in
the Park Hyatt Hotel. Over fifty washi paper lanterns cast a discrete glow over
the gray marble bar - the perfect atmosphere for exchanging confidences and discussing
pop-star peccadilloes while gazing out over the glittering carpet that is Tokyo at night.
The classic martini (JY1500) - insert the gin of your choice here - was poured into
a perfectly chilled large glass and garnished with an equally substantial green olive and
Deco spiral of lemon peel; a serious drink by any standards. The great Caesar martini
(JY1500), which is vodka-based, has a hidden kick in the form of an anchovy-stuffed olive.
For a refreshing twist try the lemon drop (JY1500) - theirs is undoubtedly the best
Although The Peak was celebrity-free on our visit, we ended up in good company at Nobu
Tokyo, the culinary brainchild of Robert De Niro and chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, and the next
stop on our exhaustive tour of drinking duty. Sumo star Musashimaru was entrenched at the
next table in the intimate bar that's set apart from the main restaurant. We didn't join
fellow sumo heavyweight Konishiki celebrating at his birthday dinner, but opted for
aperitifs instead. After confusing the waiter slightly with a request for Ketel One, which
they didn't have, we ordered a pair of classic martinis (JY1200) that came spiked
with bamboo olive-picks.
The quest for the quintessential New York businessman's drink naturally led to Foreign
Trader's Bar in the dark, woody basement of the American Club. A haunt of expat residents
from the Land of the Free, this drinking institution was no doubt one of the only places
you could find the real thing. The martinis (JY700) were truly American: fittingly
dry, in large glasses and properly chilled. One caveat: Members are billed for all
services, so planting a wad of yen on the bar will ruin your credibility and blow your
cover - the best way to visit is as a guest anyway.
|Naked martinis? Churchill would
No tasting would be complete without a night out at Tokyo's only dedicated martini bar,
gmartini's. More Austin Powers than 007, gmartini's attracts groovy swingers, rather than
square drinkers of the classic, who party away into the wee hours. We must admit that even
on our second visit we failed to ascertain exactly what the shag room really was-low mojo
on our part no doubt.
The martinis, served in the city's biggest glasses, were swiftly assembled by star barman
Sean and passed over the python-skin counter. The bestseller out of the 40 varieties on
offer is the crantini (JY1000), a communist-red gem finished with fresh
cranberries. The vodka martini (JY1000) came in a more traditionally sized glass,
very dry as requested, and we thought it was time to try it stirred. Few people make the
request, according to Sean, but for those concerned about ice-melt during the shaking
process it's the way to go. Shakers claim that skilled barmen have perfected the technique
of a quick, sharp shake that minimizes ice-chipping and dilution from melted ice. And one
myth that promotes more violent action is that shaking bruises the gin and allows it to
mix better with the vermouth.
Be warned that the vodka and gin at gmartini's are limited to specific brands, so if
Absolut and Tanqueray are not your bag you'll have to hit the specialty coffees. Other
nouveau-tinis with fruity twists involve mashed kiwifruit and a plethora of psychedelic
colors - we recommend the sweet Catherine the Great (JY1000) or cosmopolitan
(JY1000) for a fruity fix that would send Hemingway and the old crowd spinning.
Licensed to drink
Finding ourselves in Akasaka one night, we decided to drop by local hotspot Bill's CafE
Bar for an impromptu taste test. The vodka and gin martinis (JY960), with a single
olive apiece, made a speedy appearance. The vodka verdict: vermouth overload, definitely
more wet than dry. The gin was just the opposite-bone dry. A busty blond regular gave us
an insider tip that Gary gives multiple olives, so if you like a little extra in your
liquid lunch ask if he's on duty.
Walking through Akasaka we were suddenly struck by the ultimate Tokyo martini
connection-Hotel New Otani was added to the list. Featured in the 1967 Bond movie You
Only Live Twice, the hotel played the part of the evil chemical corp's headquarters.
Stepping in Sean Connery's footprints, we trekked over to the hotel and headed to the bar.
Unfortunately these days the main bar resides in the new post-007 tower on the 40th floor.
Vesper, the martini Bond created for a beautiful double agent in Casino Royale,
was absent from the menu, but naturally the vodka martini (JY1300) was impeccable
with a good lemony zing. Diamonds might be forever, but serious drinkers should go for a 40
carat martini (JY1800) made with sapphires, Bombay Sapphire that is. The oversized
glass came brimming with dry martini and an extra large green olive. Our Asian Bond girl
plumped for the saketini (JY1500), which was smooth and deadly drinkable, although
missing the requisite cucumber.
Sean shakes more
than he stirs
Fortified by the Bond-esque booze, we went off in search of the elusive vesper, finally
tracking it down to the opulence of Volga in Roppongi. Slightly put off by the seemingly
closed exterior, capped with soft-cream swirls a la St Basil's cathedral, we venture down
the plush staircase and into a world of kitsch. No pictures of Sean, Roger, George,
Timothy or Pierce on the walls dotted with celebrity testimonials-although the President
of Haiti did seem like he could be a potential bad guy. The jewel-studded velvet walls,
faux icons and suit of armor could have come straight from one of Blofeld's secret lairs
or General Gogol's dacha.
The vesper (JY1000) was served at the table - the way it should be - and spritzed
with orange zest. Bond's specifications are 3oz gin, 1oz vodka, half ounce Lillet blanc
and lemon peel, but our waiter let slip that Volga adds a dash of orange bitters to the
mix. The Finlandia martini (JY1000) was the waiter's recommendation from the 29
vodkas on offer, and it turned out to be worthy of the endorsement. Settling down to some
Sevruga caviar (JY7500), we perused the rest of the drink menu, which features a number of
other takes on the martini. Serious aficionados will appreciate the inclusion of the General
Montgomery, citrontini and Cajun martini - all JY1000. We opted for a Chicago
martini, the winner of a 1951 martini making competition. The waiter rinsed the
chilled glass with Cointreau, rather than vermouth, before pouring the flute full to the
brim and blessing it with orange zest for a deliciously different variation on the
martini. Our conclusion: Despite being a restaurant rather than a bar, Volga is the Holy
Grail of martini maniacs in search of the real McCoy. Venture down, sip them and see.
Little black martini book
3-5-14 Shiba Koen, Minato-ku (Tel: 03-3433-1766). Open 11:30am-2pm and 5:30pm-1am Mon-Sat,
5:30pm-1am Sun and holidays. Nearest stn: Kamiyacho
The Peak Bar, Park Hyatt Hotel, 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku (Tel:
03-5322-1234). Open 5-11:30pm weekdays (10:30pm Sun and holidays). Nearest stn: Shinjuku
New Otani Hotel, 4-1 Kioi-cho, Chiyoda-ku (Tel: 03-3265-1111). Nearest
Nobu Tokyo 6-10-17 Minamiaoyama Minato-ku (Tel: 03-5467-0022). Open:
11:30am-2pm (Mon-Fri), 6-10pm. Nearest stn: Omotesando
Bill's CafEBar, Akasaka Tanaka Bldg 1F, 3-16-11 Akasaka, Minato-ku
(Tel: 03-3586-8018). Nearest stn: Akasaka-Mitskue
Old Imperial Bar, Imperial Hotel 1-1-1 Uchisaiwaicho, Chiyoda-ku (Tel:
03-3504-1111). Nearest stn: Hibiya
Foreign Trader's Bar, Tokyo American Club, 2-1-2 Azabudai, Minato-ku
(Tel: 03-3224-3677). Open until 12am (last order 11:30pm). Members only, for membership
enquiries call 03-3224-3257. Nearest stn: Kamiyacho
gmartini's 4F Five Plaza Bldg, 5-18-12 Roppongi, Minato-ku (Tel:
03-3588-6147). Open 7pm-6am (or later), two-for-one Happy Hour 7pm-9pm. Nearest stn: