Ryukyu Mixology Style Bar Alchemist, using the latest equipment and materials produced in Okinawa.
Have you heard of the term “mixology”? Mixology is a word coined from the combination of the words “mix” and “ology” (Science). Bars that offer cocktails filled with ideas that incorporate the latest cooking methods without being bound by existing frameworks are beginning to attract attention around the world. I would like to introduce to you the first mixology bar in Okinawa, Ryukyu Mixology Style Bar Alchemist. We spoke with bartender Tomoaki Nakamura.
−What kind of bar is Ryukyu Mixology Style Bar Alchemist?
It is a bar that serves original cocktails using the latest equipment and Okinawan ingredients.
−What is the latest equipment, for example?
Espuma, smoke machines, liquid nitrogen, food dryers, distillers, aroma smoke, vacuum cookers, carbonate shakers, etc. Espuma turns the ingredients into a mousse-like foam, creating a light and fluffy texture and rich flavor. Liquid nitrogen is used to freeze drinks to make frozen cocktails, while we use distillers for wormwood and moonflowers, for example, to make aromatic distilled water and syrups. The food dryer is used to dry tomatoes, bitter melon, citrus fruits, and other fruits to add a finishing touch to cocktails.
−You have been bartending for a long time, how long have you been bartending?
I started bartending when I was 19, so this is my 20th year.
I am from Kumamoto Prefecture, and when I first moved to Okinawa, I was working part-time at a bar at night while attending a vocational school for childcare workers. After graduating from the school, I became a nursery schoolteacher, but it was not enough to make a living, so I continued to work part-time at the bar. I think it was in the middle of my second year as a nursery schoolteacher that I became interested in being a “flare bartender”, making cocktails while performing, and I was allowed to work at a flare bar two to three times a week to train. I was working three jobs at the same time, so it was getting harder and harder for me. My interest in flare bartending was at its highest. That’s when I was approached by a flare bar. It was a bar called “Eclipse” in Chatan. I worked there for three years. After that, I worked as an outsourcer at a flair bar in Okinawa City for three years, then at the food and beverage department of the Okinawa T-shirt brand HABUBOX in Chatan for two years, at the Roisir Hotel in Naha for three years, and at the Sheraton Hotel for two years before launching Alchemist in August 2018.
−Why did you decide to open a mixology bar? How did you get started?
When I started working at the Loisir Hotel, I started to participate in cocktail competitions and shows all over Japan. I knew I wanted to work as a traveling flair bartender, so I wanted to increase my awards and achievements. I think it was around 2015 or 2016, when I stopped by the bar “Benfiddich” in Shinjuku after the Kanto Tournament was over. There was a guest bartender from N Y that day, and many of Japan’s top bartenders were there to watch. I was able to join the social gathering afterwards, and I found it interesting that everyone had a different take on cocktails. At that time, I thought to myself. I thought, “I want to do mixology with a solid foundation. At that time, there were no mixology bars in Okinawa, so I decided to become the “first penguin”.
−Why is the name of the restaurant “Ryukyu”?
This is because we are particular about Okinawa. Shikwasa, shell ginger, huchibar (mugwort), red sweet potatoes, bitter gourd, sanping tea, island chili peppers, etc… We use Okinawan ingredients as much as possible, and in addition to ingredients, we also use utensils made by artists working in Okinawa such as Yoshiaki Imamura, Gaku Yamagami, and Nobuko Konno. For the food menu, we purchase from “Timeless Chocolate”, Okinawa’s first bean to bar style chocolate specialty store, and “TESIO”, a specialty store of homemade ham and sausage in Okinawa City. We named the store “Ryukyu” because we want to support the people who are working hard in the prefecture, and we also want to make it a store that can revitalize the economy of Okinawa.
−How many different cocktails do you have? I’ve never seen these cocktails anywhere else.
I think we have about 60 to 70 original cocktails. Some of them are made for bar hoppers and bar lovers, while others are easy to understand for people who are not used to going to bars. I refer to a lot of things. I refer to books written by chefs and pâtissiers, and to the combination of essential oils in aromatherapy. I love books, so I read and study books of various genres.
When I think of an original menu, I first decide on a theme. For example, if the theme is “passion fruit,” I think of the herbs and spices that go well with passion fruit, and then I think, “Let’s add a little acidity.” Then I think of a recipe in my head. Once you have a good idea of what you want to do, try making it and drinking it to make sure you can feel the flavors of all the ingredients used. Then I add or subtract ingredients. My goal is to create a cocktail that can be tasted with all five senses.
−Why do you stock Masahiro Okinawa Gin?
I decided to use all the craft gins from Okinawa for my store that focuses on Okinawa. Masahiro Okinawa Gin was the first craft gin to be produced in Okinawa, so it’s very well known. There are three companies selling craft gin in Okinawa, and I think it’s interesting that each one has its own personality.
−What is your impression of Mahiro Okinawa Gin compared to the other two companies?
The Awamori flavor was still there, which was controversial to the bartender (laughs), but to the general public, it might be better to have this Awamori flavor to make it more “Okinawan. In addition to the Awamori, the Shikwasa aroma also comes out in a buzz, so even if someone who is not used to making cocktails were to make one at home using Masahiro Okinawa Gin, I don’t think the characteristics would be lost.
−What are the cocktails using Masahiro Okinawa Gin that are available here?
The “Masahiro Okinawa Gin and Tonic” gives you a simple taste of six botanicals, and the “Masahiro Espresso Gin and Tonic” is made with “Masahiro Okinawa Gin Recipe 02,” which uses tangerine, a popular ingredient in Okinawa.
The Masahiro Espresso Gin and Tonic is a cocktail made with tangerine flavored Masahiro Okinawa Gin, a small amount of vodka flavored with homemade cassia cinnamon, tonic water, and finished with espresso brewed with shallow roasted Yirgacheffe coffee beans.
I tried the coffee beans in a deeper roast, but the shallow roast was more in line with the citrus flavor and the espresso flavor.
−How would you have Masahiro Okinawa Gin at home?
Chill the gin in the freezer beforehand. I think a good gin and tonic is to fill a glass with ice, pour in the gin that has been chilled in the freezer, and then pour the chilled soda into the glass. The important thing is to keep the temperature of the gin down. That way, when you pour the soda, the aroma will come through. Since a bottle of gin takes up a lot of space, you can also put some Masahiro Okinawa Gin in a glass and chill it in the freezer. I thought that the flavor of Masahiro Okinawa Gin would come out better if it was simply drunk.
−What foods go well with gin and tonic?
The gin and tonic are refreshing and it’s a wash. So, I think it goes well with anything that makes your mouth feel thick. For example, Goya champuru. You fry it in oil, right? The gin and tonic cleanses the mouth, doesn’t it?
−What is your favorite spot in Okinawa?
There are many, but I like to visit the ocean and cafes in Nanjo City. It’s just the right distance from Naha, isn’t it? I feel happy when I drive to Nanjo City and relax while enjoying the scenery from the cafes.
Ryukyu Mixology Style Bar Alchemist
Photo text：Sachiko Tachi
How to taste Masahiro Okinawa gin recommended by the tequila bar “Elote” that conveys the charm of tequila.
Tequila is made from the stems of agave, a succulent plant that grows wild mainly in Mexico. Although it is still not a familiar drink in Japan, the sweetness and flavor unique to agave continues to attract tequila fans around the world. This time, we talked to Norio Watanabe, the manager of “Elote”, Okinawa’s first bar specializing in tequila. Mr. Watanabe is a Tequila Maestro (Sommelier) certified by the Japan Tequila Association. With a vision of “spreading the appeal of tequila in Japan,” he is active daily.
-Why did you open a bar specializing in tequila?
I think tequila is an easily misunderstood alcoholic beverage. In Japan, there are many people who have a negative image of tequila, such as those who think that it is hard to drink because of its strong flavor, or that it is a drink to be chugged in shots, or that tequila shots are a punishment (hangover the next day). In other countries, it is not the case, and I would like you to realize that.
In fact, there are many celebrities and Hollywood stars overseas who love to drink it. Guitarist Carlos Santana, former vocalist Sammy Hagar of Van Halen, rock band AC/DC, and actor Charlie Sheen have all produced tequila. Casa Migos, a tequila brand launched by George Clooney, is particularly famous. Recently, Michael Jordan produced a tequila called “cincoro” that became a hot topic. The fact that the ingredients are plant-based may have attracted the attention of health-conscious celebrities.
Tequila is not focused on as much as wine or beer. That’s why I wanted to create a place where many people can enjoy tequila while providing correct information. I would like to change the false image of tequila.
-How many types of tequilas does Elote have in store?
More than 200 kinds. I think this is the only bar in Okinawa that specializes in tequila with such a large selection. We also have spirits, distilled spirits, and all the other liquors you would find in a typical bar.
-Mr. Watanabe, how did you become interested in tequila?
I’m from Kawasaki City in Kanagawa Prefecture, and the area in front of Kawasaki Station has the largest market share of Cuervo, a top brand of tequila, in Japan, so I was wondering why this drink is so popular. That’s when I started to wonder. When I did a little research, I found out that tequila is an alcoholic beverage that is under surprisingly strict control, and I thought that was interesting. At that time, I found out about the Japan Tequila Association at the right time and decided to take the course to learn more.
-When did you move to Okinawa from Kawasaki?
It was about two and a half years ago now. There is a bar in Tokyo called Gatito that specializes in tequila, and Elote is its sister bar. When I opened Elote, I was hired as the manager. Yuka Ito, the owner of Gatito, and I were originally tequila buddies, and she approached me.
Okinawa was not a place to live, but a place to go for relaxation. I liked Okinawa and came to visit at least once a year. I had acquaintances who lived in Uruma City, so I spent a lot of time hanging around there. I live in Naha now, but I knew very little about Naha until I moved there.
−What are Elote’s guests like?
We have a wide range of customers, from locals who live in Okinawa to people who come to Okinawa for sightseeing or work. There are also people of various nationalities. Recently, I’m happy to see that more and more people come here looking for tequila because they have a genuine interest in it.
–What is the right way to drink tequila?
As you wish… is what I would say but…If you are a newcomer to tequila and heard that there is a tequila specialty store, I often suggest that you try to compare tequilas first. It is best to drink it straight, without splitting it with anything else. If you do, please do not drink it all at once, but savor it slowly in a suitable glass.
-Does Elote also offer cocktails with tequila?
The frozen margarita, a tequila-based cocktail with a frozen twist, is very popular. The alcohol content of tequila can range from 35 to 55 degrees, but when made into a frozen cocktail, it becomes gentler on the palate.
I also recommend a cocktail called “Paloma,” which is not very well known. Paloma means dove in Spanish. In Mexico, there is a carbonated drink called Squat that is flavored with grapefruit and lime. This cocktail is made by mixing tequila with Squat and soda, squeezing a lime, and adding salt to the rim of the glass. It is like the Japanese grapefruit sour. The name comes from the fact that it is so easy to drink that “if you drink it too fast, you will end up with staggered feet.
-What one bottle would you recommend for a tequila beginner?
Probably Don Julio. Made from only the finest agave, Don Julio is characterized by its mild pungency, smoothness, and gentle taste. It is a brand that has been supported for a long time, and its brand image is one of the most popular in the tequila world. We have three varieties with different aging periods. The new variety has a green and fresh taste, and the more it ages, the stronger the vanilla aroma becomes.
−Why did you stock Masahiro Okinawa Gin
First, I am interested in Awamori. Only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be called champagne, but tequila also has a globally recognized designation of origin, and only tequila made in five states (Jalisco, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Michoacán, and Guanajuato) can be called tequila. The same is true for Ryukyu Awamori. The designation of place of origin is approved for Ryukyu Awamori, which is produced in Okinawa using Thai rice and black koji mold with all koji preparation. And Awamori, like tequila, is often mistaken for a “hard-to-drink” alcoholic beverage. Because of these similarities, I was interested in Awamori. When I heard that Awamori Shuzo had released a gin…. There’s no reason not to be interested, right?
−What would you say is the appeal of Masahiro Okinawa Gin
Masahiro Shuzo, Mizuho Shuzo, and Ishikawa Shuzo are the three companies that make gin in Okinawa, but in my opinion, Masahiro Shuzo’s gin has the most Awamori flavor. Each of them is different and delicious, but the aroma of the raw materials in Masahiro Okinawa Gin comes out strongly. I think it has the appeal to connect shochu fans and gin fans.
−What would you say your recommended way to drink Masahiro Okinawa Gin is?
I think it is best to drink it with soda or half soda and half tonic. It is recommended that you twist the peel of the citrus fruit to release the aroma components and add flavor. Since Masahiro Okinawan Gin uses Shikwasa, I think the best way to flavor it is with Shikwasa peels.
Surprisingly, I also like it with milk. The ratio of gin to milk is 1:4. The milk coats the gin fluffily and gives it a soft, silky taste.
−Any recommended food to pair with Masahiro Okinawa Gin?
I think tomatoes go well with it. The reason is that gin is a distilled liquor, so there is no sugar left in it, and it is a liquor that is difficult to produce flavorful ingredients. The balance can be achieved by supplementing the missing flavor component (glutamic acid) through cfood. Tomatoes are a vegetable that contains glutamic acid, so they should be a good match for Masahiro Okinawa Gin. You can marinate sweet and sour tomatoes, or combine seasonal fruits, tomatoes, and shrimp in a salad.
−What is your favorite spot in Okinawa?
Since my home is in Naha, I often take a walk on my days off, stop by a local liquor store, buy a can of beer, and go to the beach to relax. Isn’t that the best way to spend your time? I would recommend this to anyone who comes here as a tourist.
Address: 1-1-39 Makishi, Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture, Step Building 4F
The charisma of Awamori. Interviewing Mr. Higa from the “Awamori Soko” on the charm of “Masahiro Okinawa Gin”.
The “Awamori Soko” (a members-only bar specializing in Awamori) that can be enjoyed by everyone from beginners to connoisseurs. This is a famous Okinawan restaurant known only to those in a particular circle. As soon as you press the intercom to enter the store, you will see a wall full of bottles of Awamori. With over 800 kinds of Awamori from all 47 breweries in Okinawa Prefecture, it’s a breathtaking view. For this interview, we spoke with Koji Higa, the owner of “Awamori Soko”.
−When did you first become interested in Awamori?
Awamori has always been close to my heart. I had a strong image from my father that Awamori was “a drink that got you drunk”, so I didn’t have a good impression of it from an early age. But as I got older, I started acquiring an appreciative taste for it. After working at an Awamori specialty store on Kokusai Street, I became the manager of the original “Awamori Soko” in 2009, taking over from my predecessor.
−Why did you decide to make it members-only?
It is good to serve alcohol in a style that is enjoyed by all, but Awamori is a local drink that has a story behind it. I would like to tell you not only how to drink good Awamori, but also how to pair it with food, and if possible, the history of the land behind it and the thoughts of the producers. We want to make sure that we tell the story of each bottle, so we have made it a members-only event.
However, when I hear the word “membership,” I can’t help but think it’s a negative word… but, we also welcome first time visitors, although only by prior reservation. There is a permanent registration fee of 20,000 yen, but there is no renewal fee, and we will connect you with Awamori for life. The charge is 2,000 yen, and drinks are at cost. We offer drinks starting at 50 yen per glass, so please feel free to come acquainted to a variety of drinks and get a taste of their flavor and background. We not only have Awamori, but also rum and gin, which have routes in Okinawa.
−Who are the most common customers?
I believe that this is not just a restaurant for Awamori connoisseurs, and everyone who comes here is excited to enjoy the local sake and history. I would say that about 60% of our customers are from outside the prefecture or come here on business or as tourists. There are people who stop by every time they visit Okinawa, and there are also people who come to visit me when I travel outside the prefecture for events to promote Awamori. I have the impression that most of our customers are in their 40s or so and have strong inquisitive minds.
−It seems that young people are turning away from alcohol these days, what do you think about that?
I don’t feel it at all because it’s not happening around me…But I can understand it. Why? Because we live in an age of increasing distractions. With just one smartphone, you can connect with the whole world, and trends are coming in from all over the world…. We live in a good time where we can get excited about all kinds of things, and this means that we have more tools for fun and communication other than just drinking.
−Many people seem to have the image that Awamori = hard liquor.
Some people think that old sake (Awamori) is “hard to drink” because of its high alcohol content, but this is not a problem of the alcohol content, it is often because of the inappropriate way of drinking. For example, wine is drunk in a wine glass, right? Wine is not gulped down in a beer mug, and no one can taste it if it is drunk in a beer mug. It is only by pouring wine into a special glass and tasting it with cheese that you can get the most out of the wine’s characteristics and charm. The same goes for Awamori. Old sake that has been aged for a long time should not be drunk, but rather poured into a teacup and savored little by little as if licking. By taking time to savor it, you will be able to enjoy its depth and aroma.
It’s not that the alcohol is harsh, it’s just the way you drink and how much you drink… You take your time to savor it because of its high percentage. I think that when you encounter that way of drinking, your image and concept of alcohol will change.
−What is the best bottle of Awamori for beginners?
I would like to introduce you to Masahiro Okinawa Gin. Blended with shikwasa, bitter gourd, guava and other ingredients grown in Okinawa, Masahiro Okinawa Gin is a drink with an imaginative regional story.
Basically, gin and tonics are the best way to drink it, however Awamori gin tends to be a little heavy. So, a “gin sonic” made with a 1:1 ratio of soda and tonic water may be easier to drink. If too much sugar is added, it may be difficult to get the aroma, but a little sweetness is better for those who are not used to drinking.
I think that Masahiro Okinawa Gin is a good entry point for beginners to Awamori.
−What do you think is the best food to pair with “Gin Sonic”?
The gin sonic made with Masahiro Okinawa Gin is flavorful, refreshing, and sweet…this drink is already complete. The first thing I would like you to do is to drink it by itself and gulp it down refreshingly. A dish that can take advantage of this aroma without fighting with it would be a spicy curry. The refreshing taste of gin is also good for controlling the spicy taste.
Then again, gin sonic is better to gulp down than to chug. Therefore, it goes better with hearty dishes different to when drinking sake. For example, when eating “Goya Chanpuru”, it is better to drink Orion beer or Awamori with water instead of straight. It is easier to pair the volume of the drink with the volume of the food.
−Please tell us the recommended spots in Okinawa that you would like to recommend to those tired souls.
The ocean! You can’t go wrong with that answer. I also went there yesterday. I think it’s good to visit bars in Okinawa. A bar with an interior design is a great place to spend a relaxing time. When you think of Okinawan nights, you probably have a strong image of a “rowdy party”. But there is more to it than that. Please do some research and if one of those places is “Awamori Soko”, I’d be even happier!
Address：2-8-14-4F Kume, Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture