Japanese Whiskey Is All About Starting Over

My lifelong connection with Japan is really what led me to become a bartender. Well, that and my obsession with Japanese whiskey.

Sep 19 2014, 2:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Kusabi

John deBary is the Bar Director at Momofuku.

I have kind of a weird connection with Japan. My grandfather was stationed there after World War II, and after he came back he became a professor of East Asian studies. He's 95 and still teaches at Columbia. My dad spent seventh grade at a middle school in Kyoto, and my parents took my brother and me to Kyoto when I was 13. So, the connection has always been very strong within my family and for me personally.

Kyoto was so cool to go to the first time; we were hiking in the mountains, and we would go to the river and visit shrines and temples. I was hooked. I started teaching myself Japanese from Dragon Ball Z comic books in my spare time—that's the kind of nerdy kid I was. In college, I wrote my thesis on the Japanese introduction to being a part of global culture in the 1860s, because before that they were consciously very closed off to the outside world. Then they opened up their borders and ended up being a huge global superpower. So I've always been kind of interested in the Japanese connection with the rest of the world.

I lived there for a brief period after college. My fiancé wasn't really interested in moving to Japan, so he came to retrieve me after a couple of months, and we spent a couple of weeks together living with a family. One night my fiancé and I wanted to go out to a bar, so we went to a place called Pontocho in Kyoto. It's on an old nightlife pedestrian street on the edge of the river. This was seven or eight years ago, and I had no intention of being a bartender and didn't know much about spirits or anything like that—I mean, Jack Daniels was basically what I knew of whiskey. So, I went to this whiskey bar on a recommendation from a friend, and I opened their list, and it's like 400 whiskeys. I had no idea that it could be like that, on the same level that you would approach fine dining or a wine list. But again, I had no plans to be near bartending, I was still thinking of going to law school, or having some kind of "intellectual" job—more of a classic career trajectory.

Make It: The Mountainside

There was this temple, one of those Japanese shrines with orange gates, that I would go running by. It was at sea level, and you could run up the mountains and look over the entire city. I had heard that New Year's in Japan is really different than the way we think about it as a holiday. The friend that I was living with and I were kind of afraid—it's the biggest holiday in Japan. This shrine is basically the Times Square of Japan; it's where everyone goes to celebrate the New Year. So we got there at 10 PM and walked around, and there was literally no one there. It was frightening. I wasn't sure if I got the date wrong. We were walking around so confused, but as we finally reached the main square of this shrine, we realized that we didn't know what time it was. I pulled out my phone, and right at that very second, it was going from 11:59 to midnight. Then out of nowhere, about 15,000 screaming Japanese people come flooding in from all of their different paths leading up to this square. And then I realized that they don't care about the countdown and the letting go of the past—to them it's very much about starting over. They have a special word for the first time you go to work in a new year, or the first time you talk to a friend. And that also kind of reminded me of the way that they do their whiskey production. They borrow from a lot of different traditions, and it tastes like something you've tasted before, but the level of craftsmanship is really extraordinary.

I started bartending at PDT maybe three months after I got back from Japan. I didn't have a job and was asking around and somehow someone thought I was confident enough to work there. After a while, I started creating drinks, and I remembered Japanese whiskey, and it kind of all came back to me. Now, some of my favorite cocktails I've ever made have Japanese whiskey in them. We have one at Ma Pêche called the Mountainside. It's actually one of the first drinks that I created for Momofuku. It just so happened that where I lived in Japan was really close to the Yamazaki distillery, which is probably one of the most well-known Japanese whiskeys—the name translates to "mountainside." I kind of like to have a literal approach to naming cocktails.

I was having a tasting with the distiller of Yamazaki maybe a year ago, and he told me that he could go into a bar and taste a 12-year whiskey and remember, think about what they were doing 12 years ago, in terms of their oak or their stills or their barley supply. There's something about that that gives me comfort.

As told to Hilary Pollack