Gen Yamamoto is not your typical cocktail bar. Margarita on the rocks? Vodka martini? Forget it. This is not where you go to get your drink on on a Friday night while swiping through Tinder. Nor is it a fancy craft cocktail place with the usual lineup of liquors behind the bar. Rather, the experience is more akin to what you might get at a high-end sushi omakase tasting– a course by course menu carefully selected by the chef for that day. Just like Japanese craftsmen, who bring the principles of kodawari–the inexhaustible devotion to the pursuit of one’s craft through repetition and practice–to everything they do, Gen Yamamoto has applied this same spirit to crafting his seasonal cocktails. The experience is entirely singular unto itself.
Before opening his eponymous bar in Azabu Juban, Gen Yamamoto worked several years in the New York cocktail scene. Stepping inside his shop, you’ll be surprised by just how quiet it is–no music or loud chatter, just a relaxed hush that’s fallen over Yamamoto’s audience of anywhere from 1-8 customers (the max capacity). The minimally decorated space is dominated by an impressive slab of wood (from a 500-year old Japanese oak) that forms the counter. Entirely bare, this wooden landscape forms the perfect backdrop against which Yamamoto’s creations are highlighted.
The menu is simple: select a 4-cocktail or 6-cocktail tasting and simply sit back and enjoy. No need to be concerned about getting tipsy. The cocktails are about 3-4 fluid ounces (or about 100 ml) (think large shot glass) of mostly fruit juices and a just a splash of alcohol. Perhaps a more appropriate moniker would be “alcohol-laced fruit juice” rather than calling these the typical “cocktail.” Be forewarned that the small volume still carries a sizable cost: the 4-cocktail option is ¥4,500 and the 6-cocktails is ¥6,500, not including a ¥1,000 cover charge per person.
Mr.S and I each opted for the 4-cocktail selection as we were drinking on nearly-empty stomachs (our reservation was at 6pm). A quick note on reservations– Gen Yamamoto is for the most part, reservation-only. Booking is by email through the website. Email him your dates and times and he will accommodate.
Despite Mr.S being sick with a cold, he was happy to imbibe with me. And Yamamoto-san cajoled him with the promise of a healthy dose of vitamins from all the fresh fruits and produce he uses.
As we chatted in hushed tones, the bright smell of fresh green apple filled the space. Yamamoto, behind the bar, was focused on grating a Granny Smith type apple from Nagano on a wooden oroshigane grater. The strained juice was mixed with a clean-tasting sake and pinch of powdered green tea.
Bright and clean. It felt like taking a shot at a juice bar in L.A.
As we sipped, Yamamoto-san began preparing the second drink, using juices from carrots and mandarin orange from Kumamoto, and mixing with a sweet potato shochu from Kirishima, Kagoshima.
The concoction tasted light and easily drinkable, again, more juice-like than cocktail-like. The shochu added a different kind of sweetness to the already sweet carrot and orange fruits, imparting a layer of depth of flavor.
Take a moment to admire the beautiful and delicate glassware.
Next up was a bolder flavor–ginger. This was paired with a Spanish gin.
The spiciness of the ginger was mellow and tasted quite smooth and balanced.
As the last drink of the progression, Yamamoto-san ended on a heavier note, which flavors lingered longer on the palate. One of the most interesting drinks I’ve tried, it reminded me of spiked eggnog. A mixture of sweet potato puree was mixed with a dash of chilled milk and again, a sweet potato shochu from Kagoshima (this time, a limited edition variety) and topped with chocolate shavings.
The viscosity of the sweet potato puree gave body to the drink, while the milk imparted a creaminess and richness. Altogether decadent. I was almost relieved it was a small volume–just right–any larger and it would have been too rich to drink.
Our tasting lasted nearly an hour, and our tab came to be ¥11,000 for the two of us. Practically speaking, the cost prohibits this from becoming a weekly watering hole, but we thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience nonetheless and would absolutely come again. It would be callous of me to ignore Yamamoto-san’s tremendous craftsmanship and attention to detail. These are precisely the reasons why Gen Yamamoto is so special and utterly deserving of a visit.
Gen Yamamoto, 1-6-4 Azabu Juban, Minato, Tokyo
Hours: Tues-Sat 3pm-11pm / Sun 3pm-10pm / Closed Monday