Our interview with Japanese bartender Masaya Yagishita, or Yagi-san to his regulars, took place at a secret location in Gardena, CA, where he tends a ten-seat bar. As we chatted, Yagi-san pulled out a large container and began smelling and poking limes. He remarked that he looks for limes with thin skins but are heavy with juice, those that fought hardest on the tree to be close to the sun. Satisfied with one, he sliced it open and confirmed his choice with a slight smile.
Soon, he’s crafted a perfectly balanced shochu and tonic. It’s adorned with a crown of fresh spearmint leaves, and he named this creation, “The Mangrove,” as an homage to Amami Island’s mangrove forests. And believe me, during this COVID-19 quarantine, I’m craving one badly.
It’s no surprise that his cocktails have earned him a loyal following over the decades. But, it’s also due in no small part to his dedication to precision, handpicked ingredients and a passion for wholehearted hospitality. His technique and professional approach to cocktails immediately conjure images of a Japanese bartender in a hidden Ginza bar in Tokyo. This, too, is no surprise as he’s been in love with the craft for over 48 years.
Before I get to the interview, I thought I’d share a story about Yagi-san and his generous spirit. A year earlier, when Yagi-san first drank Nankai, I asked him what he thought. He confessed that shochu was not normally his cup of tea, but he was so surprised at the drinkability of Nankai that he handed me a card. On the card was this poem:
A taste like the wind that traveled far across the sea,
passing through mangrove trees, climbing hills, and softly caressing your cheek.
Flustered that he had honored me with this gift, I hastily joked. “So, you’ll buy some then?”
Nankai: How did you become interested in making cocktails?
Yagi-san: That’s a story from a long time ago. It began when I was around nine years old. I used to go to a barber who was good friends with someone famous among Japanese bartenders. There was this cocktail book there and I would read it every time I went. By the time I was in junior high, I knew a lot about alcohol, how it was made, how it was used in drinks. And my curiosity about alcohol just kept going.
Nankai: So… you started drinking really young?
Yagi-san: Not at all! I didn’t really start drinking until I became a bartender. I was 26, a late bloomer. But, even then I wasn’t drinking because I liked the taste. It was around 44 when I truly began to enjoy the second glass. For me, the first glass is always to evaluate or digest and the second is for enjoyment.
Nankai: How did you gain the skills and knowledge that you have today?
Yagi-san: Like most things in life, bartending, if it’s a passion, requires you to constantly learn something new. Every day, at least once a day, I’ll open a book about spirits or cocktails and try to find something new or interesting to consider. I’ve done this consistently for 30 years straight, no matter where I am. Bartending is truly a lifestyle more than a professional in my opinion.
Nankai: I’ve heard that a Japanese bartender is often admired for their precision and technical attention to detail. Having done this for awhile now, do you agree and is that the secret behind great cocktails?
Yagi-san: There’s a lot of different approaches, so it’s hard to say what’s right. But I do like respecting the techniques and paying attention to the small details. For example, with limes, you won’t really know if it’s going to be a sweet lime or a more tart lime until you cut it open. So you have to adjust your other ingredients slightly to balance it out. That just comes with experience. And watching your customers— some people like it sweet and some like it tart. That’s why I prefer serving at the bar counter more than sending cocktails to a table.
Nankai: For me, once I started working on Nankai Shochu, I really grew to respect the craft of creating something. The people who distill, brew, mix. What do you love about creating?
Yagi-san: Creating for me is using the proper ingredients and using them in the proper way with proper technique to extract the best parts. The cocktails I make are quite simple actually. So everyone can make great cocktails if they follow the recipes and use proper techniques.
Nankai: I have to say that the shochu tonics I make at home pale in comparison to the ones you make.
Yagi-san: Well, you have to sprinkle a little magic dust, too, you know. [laughs] I think it’s just about putting your feelings into it; that’s an important aspect, too. I make this cocktail for you with the feeling that I truly want you to love it.
Nankai: Is that what gives you satisfaction or enjoyment in this profession?
Yagi-san: I think so. I want people to enjoy their time with me. They’ll open that door, sit down at this counter, find a bit of happiness at the end of their day, and return home. Providing that simple pleasure is one of my pleasures.
Nankai: I can see you care about making a home for your customers. I noticed that large collection of antique drinkware over there. Is that yours?
Yagi-san: Yes, I brought all those from my personal collection. Some of these are very old. I go through quite a few glasses because they get destroyed all the time. [Off my reaction] Glasses are meant to be broken and if it’s done while being used, I don’t mind at all.
Nankai: I’ll have to tell Mai (my wife and co-founder) that. She’ll be beyond happy to hear it. She breaks plates and glasses all the time.
Yagi-san made another cocktail for me, this time mixing Nankai with a lychee liqueur. It was delicious.
Nankai: Do you have a go-to cocktail to recommend to customers?
Yagi-san: I don’t really have one. I prefer to ask what sort of drinks they usually enjoy and go from there. When a new customer asks for “omakase,” it’s the most difficult request for me. If you like any kind of alcohol, that’s fine. But most people have strong preferences or dislikes.
Nankai: What’s the most difficult cocktail people have ordered?
Yagi-san: Martinis. It’s a very simple recipe, but to make it every time with perfect consistency of flavor is difficult. The simplicity makes it so there’s nothing to hide behind.
Nankai: Okay so I have to be selfish and ask— What is your recommendation for people wanting to drink Nankai Shochu at home?
Yagi-san: Honestly, Nankai Shochu is well made drink on its own so I don’t like to do too much to it. But it’s clean and doesn’t interfere with other flavors, so if they’re looking for a mixed drink, it’s perfect for that. I’d add an acidic component to bring it all together. Perhaps Nankai with cranberry juice and a bit of lime. I like cranberry because it’s forgiving and allows for easy adjustments to your own tastes.
Yagi-san made me one to demonstrate. He added the lime incrementally to show how the flavor can be adjusted. Sipping it slowly, I sighed, completely relaxed and at home. Yagi-san nodded with contentment and returned to the task of shaping a large cube of ice.
The Nankai Mangrove: Shochu and Tonic
- 2 oz Nankai Shochu
- 4 oz Tonic Water
- ½ Lime
- 6-10 Spearmint Leaves Include pepperment stems and leaves if available.
- Add lime and spearmint leaves (and peppermint if available) to collins glass.
- Muddle to release oils and juice.
- Add Nankai Shochu and ice.
- Carefully add tonic water.
- Stir gently to preserve carbonation.
- Garnish with mint and lime slice and serve.