Tokyo Cocktails is a 368-page hardback featuring the Japanese capital’s best bartenders, best drinks and a history of the world’s best cocktail scene. After more than 20 years of drinking in Tokyo, this is what I make of it all.
“It was a Brit who brought cocktails to Japan. A great-nephew of Jane Austen, no less. George T. M. Purvis was a former captain with the Royal Navy who washed up in the port of Yokohama in the 1870s, a time of great turmoil and opportunity.
In the preceding decade, Japan had mourned an emperor, overthrown a shogun, moved its capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, stripped nearly 2 million samurai of their roles and privileges, and was preparing to introduce the yen and divide into 47 prefectures. Modern Japan was taking shape.
Yokohama was attracting an international medley of merchants, entrepreneurs, tourists, itinerant criminals, and adventurers, as well as fortune-seekers from across Japan. Hotels sprang up to serve them and–though the early ones were small, rough, and frequently rowdy—the city finally got one to brag about in 1868. The International Hotel was a two-story waterfront structure that advertised the largest billiard room in town. It was the city’s flagship accommodation until 1873, when the Grand Hotel appeared next door to begin a fierce rivalry.
The 45-year-old Purvis took ownership of the International the summer after the Grand appeared, and within a month had introduced something he hoped would give his hotel the upper hand: Japan’s first cocktail bar. Purvis himself mixed the drinks for the first few weeks, though caricatures from the era suggest it wasn’t his forte, depicting a sweating, disheveled man trying to throw a cocktail. An experienced pro from California arrived a month later to take over.
Purvis died just five years later, so he never had to witness the rivals next door stealing the cocktail scene. In 1889, the Grand’s owners hired a new general manager with an impressive hospitality resume. Louis Eppinger had emigrated from Germany to the US as a teenager and spent decades working in or managing saloons and hotels up and down the West Coast. Once in Yokohama, Eppinger or- dered a renovation of the Grand, adding fancy balconies, a 300-seat dining room, in-room air coolers, and a billiard room with a bar, saying he wanted the place to be on a par with Europe’s famed Grand Dame hotels.
Eppinger also introduced his guests to two drinks that would become iconic, the Bamboo and the Million Dollar, and trained many of the people who would become instrumental in creating Tokyo’s cocktail scene…”