At a certain moment in the 1990s, the notion of Asian-inspired cocktails conjured up that sickly-sweet iconic beverage, the “saketini.” But the true art of Japanese craft cocktails, whether in Tokyo, New York or beyond, infuses the patient elegance of a traditional tea ceremony with the delicate precision of a perfectly balanced meal that is discreet in both taste and aesthetic.
Building on that revival, with a nod to the cult famed East Village bar Angel’s Share, a Japanese speakeasy that inspired much of New York City’s current drinking culture, is Bar Goto. The tiny izakaya-style watering hole in the Lower East Side is the accomplishment of Kenta Goto, who worked at the Pegu Club for seven years before finally offering his own drinking spot to his many loyal customers. On the wall hangs a 100-year-old kimono, passed down from Goto’s grandmother, while the gold-and-purple accents found throughout the space remind the Tokyo-born mixologist of “traditional Japanese temples.”
Indeed, this small shrine to the Japanese cocktail serves “updated” versions of the classics, Goto tells me once I’ve settled at the dark wood bar – and even a drink from the ’90s fusion wave makes an appearance. The Sakura Martini hints at the saketini, although Goto’s features gin (rather than vodka) and cedar cask-aged sake, finished with a housemade pickled cherry blossom (rather than syrupy lychees) and a splash of maraschino cherry liquor. The drink speaks softly, with just a whisper of umami. In his hands, the flavor of a liquor shines through, although the drinks are never overwhelmingly boozy. The rest of the ingredients serve to enhance rather than cloud the starring spirit.
“People in the industry see me as being good at creating subtle flavors,” Goto explains, while shaking up an Improved Shochu Cocktail. He emphasizes the flavor of the Japanese grain-based distilled spirit, shochu, by serving it in a sake box made from the aromatic cypress tree, and adding gin that’s been aged in whiskey casks. The woodsy and botanical notes that emerge as I sip the drink are unexpected and bold. It’s clear Goto’s adventurous spirit is at the forefront of his creations.
Other inspired highlights on the menu include the frothy Matcha Milk Punch, a play on the classic crème de cacao-based Brandy Alexander that blends sencha-infused vodka and earthy matcha powder. The vibrant green drink pops against the beige ceramic tea cup Goto carefully hands to me. It’s refreshing and comforting all at the same time. Similarly, the Yuzu-Calpico Fizz spritzes up the iconic Japanese white soda Calpico with sparkling water and a marshmallow garnish, which hints at some cute cartoon creature (or is that the shochu kicking in?).
Goto’s drinks are aesthetically clean and elegant – there is no kitsch here – a pleasant turn away from the current tiki trend popping up in many bars. Rather than chase cocktail trends or create the next cult saketini, Bar Goto is about innovating with history and looking for new ways to appreciate the Japanese cocktail canon.
All images by Emily Long.