Pontocho Road

Ever since I found a very cool cocktail shaker at a garage sale, I’ve been experimenting with my mixology — often motivated by given culinary circumstances (let us not forget our recent adventure into Campari on a warm night when Italian food was being served). Necessity or at the very least context being the mother of invention, I’ve been inspired to some lofty heights with spirits.

One recent evening, I was making Japanese food. My wife, having a rash that she was convinced was yeast related, was off beer. So the Sapporo that I was drinking got the stiff arm. Furthermore, she had spent much of the afternoon organizing the children’s reams of school artwork and bins of toys, and was in need of something stronger — something much stronger. All of which I took as a gauntlet being laid down. Was I mixologist enough to rise to the challenge?

With the sushi I was preparing for dinner, I wanted to serve something elegant and understated. Something reminiscent in flavor and color of Japan. Where to begin?

Those parameters immediately eliminated most of the hard alcohols — rum, tequila, gin — leaving me with vodka. For the Japanese element, I used an equal part a fine chilled saké I had in the fridge. For tartness I added Limoncello and lemonade. Finally, to give the beverage color and dimension, a few drops of Peychaud’s bitters. The cocktail would’ve stood on its own without further ado… But I’m an artist and I like dramatic flourishes. I was headed to the bathroom to pilfer an orchid blossom, when I noticed some freshly picked roses in a vase on the table. The yellow/pink of the petals would add a poetic touch, evoke the cherry blossoms that fall all over Japan each spring, and pick up the rose hue and golden afternoon sunlight of the drink.

In my “day job,” such as it is, people pay me a reasonable fee to come up with clever names, taglines and headlines for things. But the process is not as formulaic or linear as it would seem. Sometimes you spend days and weeks to come up with the right idea, other times it comes to you in a flash. I remember many years ago an account girl at a particular agency I was working at came to me with a job. Our client, a high-tech firm, was giving away a free multiport network hub, we were producing a postcard promoting the offer and needed a clever headline. Before she could even leave my office, I said, “Hey Bub, Get a Free Hub.” She said, “Really??” And I said, “Sure.” The postcard won awards and was a huge success. A few months later as I was struggling through hour after hour with another job, my boss said, “I need you to spend a little more time on this one, we’re not there yet… I need you to give it the attention you gave to ‘Hey Bub’…” And I had to explain that that one took me all of five seconds.

It’s like that with naming drinks — which is as important to the drink as its ingredients. One of my all-time favorites, pal Dan’s blood orange martini which I named “The Transfusion,” came to me in a flash. The name for this particular Japanese-inspired drink was taking a bit longer. I thought of geishas, and went in every cliché direction you can imagine (“Blushing Geisha,” “Barefoot Geisha,” “Secret Geisha,” “Geisha’s Secret,” etc.) Then I came up with an equally bad and/or insensitive lot of city-based options: “Kyoto Dream,” “Nagasaki Blast,” “Osaka to Me,” etc.

Still Life with Sushi Rice & Harmonica

Finally, I abandoned the obvious and thought about the trip I took to Japan. Thinking further about geishas and flowers — I was fortunate that my week there just happened to coincide with the much-celebrated blossoming of the cherry trees — I remembered a particular road in Kyoto, an ancient narrow avenue running parallel to the river, one of the few remaining places where it was possible you might see an actual geisha. I peeked into furtively into curtained doorways and secret gardens, hoping for a glimpse. Then climbed over a bridge rail and down the riverbed to watch a heron fishing in the icy water. The name of that narrow alley that held so much history and mystery? Pontocho.

Some night, as you sit down with chopsticks for some homemade sushi or tempura (okay, take out would work just fine too), forgo the Sapporo or saké and mix yourself a Pontocho Road.

*   *   *

Pontocho Road
serves 1

1 oz. vodka
1 oz. limoncello
1 oz. good quality saké
1 oz. lemonade
a few dashes Peychaud’s bitters
rose leaves (for garnish) — optional

In a cocktail glass, mix together all ingredients (except rose petals) with four or five ice cubes. Shake well, and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a few rose petals. Serve immediately.

The “real” Pontocho Road, Kyoto

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. rachelocal
    Aug 03, 2012 @ 02:14:07

    I need a few of those right about now!


  2. Joseph Tkach
    Aug 03, 2012 @ 06:06:46

    If you’re just getting into mixology, I think that’s not a bad start. I read a pretty good article today discussing the two broad families of drinks, aromatic and sour. If you want to make up your own drinks, it really helps to understand that there are templates and principles in putting drinks together, and when you follow them, it can be a little like playing mad libs. Check this out: http://madartlab.com/2012/08/02/rational-mixology/

    Another thing that matters a lot is mixological technique. I wrote a primer that discusses some of the most common mistakes that people make when mixing drinks: http://measureandstir.com/2012/07/06/how-to-make-better-drinks-and-the-naughty-housewife/

    A couple of other tips: the lemonade that you put in your drink, no matter how high quality, probably contains sugar, water, and lemon juice. Even if you use the nicest bottled lemonade in the world, it will never compare to the quality of a fresh squeezed lemon and some simple syrup. In this case you already have an ounce of liqueur, which is very sweet, so you probably won’t even need the simple syrup, just a half ounce of lemon juice.

    Traditionally, a mixed drink would contain two ounces of spirits. It’s fine to bend this rule a little bit, but it paces the night pretty well, in my experience, and makes your drinks consistently strong. would probably reformulate your drink like this, if I were to make it:
    1.5 oz sake
    .5 oz limoncello
    .5 oz fresh lemon juice
    1 dash of absinthe or similar
    Shake over ice and double strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a rose petal.

    Using bitters is great, but the one place where you don’t really want to use them is in a drink with fresh citrus. Sometimes it works, but a lot of the time the bitters will blunt the sharpness of your citrus. Absinthe has a liquorice flavor, and so does peychaud’s, so if you want that liquorice flavor, a few drops of absinthe will fill the same role without dulling the lemon.


    • scolgin
      Aug 03, 2012 @ 12:04:35

      Fantastic tips, thank you Joseph. I’ll definitely check out the links and especially your primer in my ongoing education in this area. (I’m a chef, so I like to just throw things in together. But a little science would do me well in this area…) Cheers!


    • pal-O
      Aug 04, 2012 @ 20:03:03

      Great comments!


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