Parmigiano cheese and Thai Tom Yum soup: does it get more savory and appealing than that? More so if you could actually experience them in a cocktail? I suppose then that it's no surprise that a Japanese barman, in the country that invented the concept of umami, has upped the ante on these flavors that customers enjoy in food, and segued into recreating them in drinks.
Shuzo Nagumo has three Tokyo-area bars and is not yet 35. He opened his first, Mixology in Tokyo—in 2009—which was followed by Mixology Akasaka in 2011 and Mixology Laboratory in the summer of last year.
He had a chance to consult with major Japanese chefs abroad, such as Nobu in London almost a decade ago, and take in the international cocktail scene. His long-term approach is innovative and somewhat molecular, and the results are striking.
The Bottom Line
Many of us in the business may be tried of pomegranate foam infused with powered buffalo meat, or whatever the latest drink trend might be. However, few bartenders have successfully managed to incorporate genuinely savory flavors subtly into their drinks.
Nagumo has been making foie gras vodka and seaweed- and burnt, soy sauce-infused drinks at his bar for some time (in addition to miso-flavor, white truffle and blue cheese spirits). He's using all the new gadgets: rotary evaporators, centrifuge machines, dehydrators and vacuum sealers.
He also sees the value of presenting classic foods in new ways, but says he is not so fascinated with textural changes that, "a regular gin and tonic would still be better than a gin and tonic served with a lime sphere." He is also trying to reduce waste by turning whatever is left over after spirit production into food. "The leftovers from making parmesan vodka can be turned into parmesan powder. Same goes for the miso gin."
Basically, his drinks-construction instincts are instinctively food-pairing driven, which is incredibly refreshing. "I made my foie gras vodka based on the hint that I got about how volatile the oils are." He has also managed to pair the spirit with chocolates and in a bit of a macabre way, also corn, which is what geese are feed: so it's the ultimate flavor bridge. He has gone so far as to pair foie gras with vodka and a pepper, "as if you were eating the foie gras and having a sip of wine."
The Science of It
While Nagumo says that Thai customers haven't been flooding his bar in search of cocktails that taste like one of their most popular soups, he was intrigued that he could use a savory soup paste to make a Tom Yum cocktail. He dissected the flavors of lemongrass and spice and turned them into liquid form. "The most important part of it is the acidity and spiciness." It's a take that is fully respects the complexity of the dish, which is not something most bartenders have historically been comfortable embracing.
It was also essential that the drink, like the soup when it is made well, is easy to consume. So he also, "added ginger beer and coriander to give it a touch of spiciness and the drink was complete." In the same vein, he has created drinks that also taste like foie gras-infused pumpkin pie: so it might even be ideal for your next Thanksgiving celebration stateside.
He also plans to open a local distillery. Given the maze of local laws in Japan, Nagumo estimates that it might take two years. "I plan on producing the flavored spirits I have been making at my bar and a new type of gin." After that he will set his sites on "creating new production [of spirits] making use of high-quality Japanese fruits, fruit wines and beer spirits."
Many cocktails have so long been seen as lacking synergies with food that it's exciting to see a young bartender break the traditional rules.