In the bar world, Japan has built a reputation for unparalleled technique and cocktail prowess. The epicenter of this approach to cocktails is undoubtedly the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo. But not all the best drinking experiences have to involve the daunting price tag of a 35-year-old Japanese whisky with crystal-clear ice hand-carved by a bartender styled out in a white suit. Actually, I favor the polar opposite.
One recent evening, I met up with friends in the popular Tokyo neighborhood Gakugeidaigaku, at Teppoudama, a humble, energetic, shoebox-size tachinomiya, literally meaning “a place to stand and drink.” Each tachinomiya is like a mini izakaya (Japanese pub) where service is quick, thanks to the ingenious design that keeps everything within arm’s reach. The place is so tiny that when someone heads toward the restroom, the entire row of patrons lining the bar needs to squeeze forward with sucked-in abdomens in order for that person to slide by.
As I wove through the crowd outside toward the entrance and parted the plastic-strip curtains, I caught sight of each of my friends wielding a beer mug with a clear, carbonated drink crowned with a faint yellow rose of gari, the thin pickled ginger typically served with sushi. Other patrons were following suit.
The drink is known as Gari Hai, a spin on the shochu-based highball known as chu hai, which originated in post–World War II Osaka. At the time, whisky was limited and expensive, but shochu could be made from distilling various ingredients—such as sweet potato, rice, barley, buckwheat, sugar cane and even shiso—and proved to be a more affordable alternative that still quenched the thirst of Japanese drinkers. Today, a canned chu hai can be found on the low end for $1 at a konbini (convenience store) and runs an average of $3 to $5 at an izakaya or tachinomiya.
Because shochu comes in a variety of expressions, it’s a versatile base perfect for blending with sodas and other flavors, whether fruit, tea, or, well, ginger. As I would learn, there is no right or wrong way to enjoy a chu hai. In fact, the Gari Hai preparation would work equally well atop a whiskey base, bringing the highball into buck territory.
“Gari Hai, hitotsu onegaishimasu!” (“One gari highball, please!”) I say to the owner standing in his “kitchen” 3 feet away from me. He pours some korui shochu, a lower-alcohol expression of the spirit, into the glass, then fills it with Wilkinson club soda. He tops it off with a generous amount of gari atop the ice. The thin pickled ginger is the same ingredient served with Teppoudama’s sushi to cleanse the palate, and a logical pairing for the restaurant’s popular negitoro temaki and seaweed tempura.
As I threw back the drink, the combination of the light, crisp shochu and the carbonation of the club soda, all filtered through the dam created by the sweet, pickled gari, was impeccably refreshing. That this level of perfection can be enjoyed for only $3 is almost as nice as knowing it can easily be replicated at home whenever the mood strikes. The recipe is uncomplicated and malleable, hinging only on access to pickled ginger, something easily attained at just about any supermarket. The best part is, after finishing the drink, there’s a little shochu-soaked snack at the end.