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Bottoms up



Photos by Kiely Ramos

Matt Wilce sips his way through Tokyo' finest martinis

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.

Mixing history
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

Imperial drinks
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 in town.

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 approve

Swigging swingers
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 CafE 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

Nazdorovye tovarish
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. Nazdorovye!

Little black martini book


Volga 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 stn: Akasaka-Mitskue

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 CafEBar, 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: Roppongi


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