Five Cocktails for the Japanese Spring

By Kelly Wetherille
May 9, 2014
Food & Drink

Springtime in Japan is nothing short of wonderful. The sun shines bright, the trees are covered in flowers and newly sprouted leaves, and the days are getting longer. It's the perfect time to head out to the balcony, terrace, garden or park with a tasty, light and refreshing cocktail. We've rounded up some of our favorite concoctions to help you maximize your enjoyment of one of our favorite seasons. While not necessarily conventional, each of these gems is easy to make and uses ingredients that are readily available in Tokyo. Kampai!

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Umeshu Cooler

Umeshu, or Japanese plum liqueur, is delicious both on the rocks and mixed with soda, but it’s not a common ingredient in cocktails, despite how inexpensive and readily available it is here. This drink is a nice alternative to the more run-of-the-mill umeshu sour and umeshu soda, and it’s a very refreshing way to enjoy an afternoon or end a long week. The sweetness of the umeshu is balanced nicely by the tartness of the lemon.

What You Need

1 shot of umeshu

2 shots of high quality sparkling lemonade (you can make your own with freshly squeezed lemon juice and sparkling water for even better flavor)

Lemon slices (for garnish)

What to Do

Fill a rocks glass with ice. Pour the umeshu over the ice, then top off with lemonade. Give it a stir and garnish with a lemon wheel. If you want to be really fancy you could even drop one of the plums from the umeshu bottle into the bottom of the glass.

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Strawberry Litchi Martini

Japan seems to have some of the most beautiful, flavorful and sweet strawberries I’ve ever seen, making them particularly well-suited for cocktails. This delicious martini combines strawberries with another favorite fruit, the litchi. Litchi juice can usually be found at import supermarkets like Nissin in Azabu Juban or National Azabu in Hiroo, but you could also substitute a splash of litchi liqueur and a few extra strawberries for sweetness.

What You Need

About 6 to 8 ripe strawberries (or one handful)

150 milliliters vodka

100 milliliters litchi juice

Splash of dry vermouth

Ice cubes

What to Do

Cut the tops off the strawberries, and place one each in the bottom of two martini glasses. Muddle the other strawberries in a cocktail shaker, then add vodka, litchi juice, vermouth and ice, and shake well until chilled through. Strain into the two martini glasses.

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Iced Green Tea-Ni

Pitcher drinks take the hassle out of entertaining, as you can mix them in advance and then allow guests to serve themselves. This cooling brew uses Japan’s own ever-present (and healthy!) thirst quencher as its base, with lemon, lime and cucumber making it even more refreshing and ginger ale adding just the right amount of bite.

What You Need

1 lemon, sliced

1 lime, sliced

About half a cucumber, sliced

About 6 sprigs of fresh mint

Ice cubes

3 cups brewed, chilled green tea

1 cup gin

1 cup ginger ale

What to Do

Gently muddle the lemon, lime, cucumber and mint in the bottom of a pitcher. Add a generous amount of ice to the pitcher, then the green tea, gin and ginger ale. Give it a stir and serve in tall glasses over ice. This is low in alcohol content, so add more gin if you want a stiffer drink. If you’re short on time or energy you can use the green tea that you buy in plastic bottles at convenience stores, but it’s best to brew your own. Simply chill in the fridge overnight and you’re ready to go the next day.

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Hinomaru Punch

Everything about this drink makes me think of a Japanese spring: the juicy strawberries, the comforting flavor of ginger, and the tangy, freshly squeezed orange juice. Put it all together with some vodka and a splash of crème de cassis, and the result is so tasty that it will have you and all your friends coming back for more. The recipe makes one drink, but it is easily multiplied to mix in a pitcher and serve to a crowd.

What You Need

2 medium strawberries, tops cut off and halved

2 slices of ginger, about 1 centimeter in diameter each

Juice of one small orange (I used seminole oranges, which are easy to find this time of year and are sweeter than naval oranges.)

2 sprigs of mint

Splash of crème de cassis

1 shot of vodka

What to Do

Muddle the strawberries, ginger, orange juice and one sprig of mint in a rocks glass. Fill the glass with ice, then pour in the vodka and the crème de cassis. Give it a stir and garnish with the other mint sprig. Enjoy over a beautiful Japanese sunset.

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Sake Rosemary Lemonade

This recipe is adapted from one using tequila, which makes a delicious cocktail in its own right, but sake is much less expensive and easier to find in Japan than 100 percent agave tequila, and it gives this drink a mellowness that makes it perfect for sipping on a lazy spring afternoon. Your rosemary plant should have started sprouting fresh new shoots now that the winter’s over, so it’s a good time to make some herb infused ice cubes to keep on hand for whenever you feel like whipping up a quick cocktail.

What You Need

8 to 12 sprigs of fresh rosemary

1 shot of sake

Homemade lemonade (use freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with water and lightly sweetened with honey)

What to Do

This drink takes a little advance preparation, so start planning now for your weekend. Trim the tips off your rosemary sprigs and place the remaining leaves and stems into a saucepan. Fill the pan with about five centimeters of water and bring to a simmer for about five to eight minutes, or until you can smell the scent of the rosemary filling your kitchen. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Discard the rosemary in the pot, and fill an ice cube tray with the infused water. Place one of your reserved rosemary tips in each cube, then freeze, reserving the leftover rosemary infused water in the fridge. Once the ice is completely frozen, pour a shot of sake into a tall glass and drop in about four to six of your rosemary infused ice cubes. Top with lemonade and a splash of rosemary infused water, stir, then garnish with a sprig of rosemary.