Can the ritualized experience of the sushi bar omakase—the "leave it to the chef" form of dining—translate to cocktails? A small but growing number of bars across the country are poised to find out.
The track has already been laid. In 2009, Gen Yamamoto, then head bartender at EN Japanese Brasserie, an izakaya-style "modern Japanese" restaurant in New York’s West Village, developed what might possibly be the first cocktail tasting menu in the country. Positioned behind a quiet, pristine bar, he served up a series of 3 ½-ounce drinks. One night it might have been three tomato-water cocktails; or a colorful, impeccably market-fresh menu that featured kiwi, strawberry and daikon radish, made and presented in turn.
But Yamamoto was far ahead of his time and his cocktail series didn’t really catch on. However, the "bartender’s choice" option—a similar "leave it to me" aesthetic, which encourages the bartender to select a single drink for a patron, with or without input from the guest on spirit or flavor preferences—took off like a shot. Popularized by New York's (now defunct) Milk & Honey, which opened in 1999 without a printed menu, "bartender’s choice" continued to proliferate in the decade that followed.
In 2011, Chicago's king of progressive cuisine Grant Achatz launched The Aviary, an ever-elaborate drinking den celebrating omakase-style cocktail service, with intricate libations organized in specific progression, and with downright ceremonial presentation. Though à la carte ordering is also available, most customers choose from a three, five or seven course cocktail menu. With the three course tasting, the customer picks his/her own series of drinks, but the five and seven course menus are bartender's choice, and also come paired with food.
...it’s a natural extension of the now-standard "bartender’s choice"—involving not just one cocktail, but rather a series of drinks...
Yet, Achatz too was still slightly ahead of his time, as cocktail omakases appear to have just recently picked up. In many ways, it’s a natural extension of the now-standard "bartender’s choice"—involving not just one cocktail, but rather a series of drinks, delivered in a sequence to comprise a total experience. (This also differentiates it from a flight, which usually involves three or more drinks delivered all at once, like a sampler platter.) And perhaps, part of the evolution may be the growing tasting menu trend at restaurants, which has paved the way for similar liquid tasting menus at the bar.
Los Angeles' The Walker Inn (a secret bar at the back of The Normandie Club in Koreatown) has been offering "omakase-style cocktail service" since it opened in May, with a reservation slot of two hours and "a menu of two cocktail courses or more," starting at $45 per person. Here, the omakase concept is particularly creative, with themes that switch up every couple of months. Meanwhile, New York stalwart Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar launched its "cocktail journey" omakase ($40 for three full-sized drinks) this past July. Yet newer to the game is Amor y Amargo, also in New York. At the East Village bitters-focused bar, beverage director Sother Teague just recently started hosting a monthly omakase event called "Two Weeks Notice." It's a prix fixe evening in which three cocktails are paired with three snacks. While the series is still in beta mode, it's slated to officially kick off in January. Teague formerly was a chef, so he hosts this intimate event as an outlet to flex his chef muscles.
The hallmark of a good omakase? A connecting thread among drinks.
When The Walker Inn—a project by Dave Kaplan and Alex Day (of New York's famed Death & Co.) plus newer partner Devon Tarby, who together comprise the Proprietors LLC group—debuted, the bar's opening theme was the Pacific Coast Highway, with drinks inspired by stops along the iconic PCH ("Big Sur" channeled smoky, sea-salty flavors; "In-N-Out" arrived on a tray from the West Coast burger chain). Other menus have been based on the movie Wet Hot American Summer (think cocktails inspired by campfires, lemonade, and drugs), and the current concept: Apples, which showcases plenty of apple-based wines, ciders and spirits, but also innovations like a smoking drink presented in a hollowed-out "apple bong."
The hallmark of a good omakase? A connecting thread among drinks.
"We try to work with themes, so there’s a narrative, a tale to tell," explains Kevin Kahawai, bartender at Blue Ribbon Downing Street (part of the same restaurant group that owns Blue Ribbon Sushi). Drink sets might center around a particular spirit, flavor profile, or drink style, like the Negroni. "There’s an infinite set of options."
..."omakase" can mean relinquishing some control.
At Blue Ribbon, a sherry flight included drinks ranging from a light, savory Pedro Ximenez Kir (wine, PX sherry, and a pinch of salt at the bottom of the wine glass), to the bracing, garnet-hued Port of Spain (rum, amontillado sherry, lime, ruby port, nutmeg garnish), to Rich Corinthian Leather (Cognac, oloroso and PX sherries and Angostura, plus six dashes of peaty Lagavulin Scotch). The latter is an ideal nightcap, and the cheesy Ricardo Montalbán reference is worth a chuckle.
However, not every omakase has that flexibility built in. Particularly among bars offering more elaborate drinks that require advance prep, often the cocktails or the entire menus are set ahead of time. Compared to the "bartender’s choice," in which the guest can specify a spirit, or what they do or don’t like in a drink, "omakase" can mean relinquishing some control.
"In the true meaning of the word ‘omakase’—chef’s choice—you are giving up the reins," explains Katie Emmerson, The Walker Inn's bar manager. Although she makes an exception for allergies ("things that might kill you"), she encourages people to "be willing to fall down the rabbit hole with something they may not be familiar with."
Another potential issue: Is the boisterous modern bar scene ready for the cocktail omakase? It’s a fun experience, but can feel a little disorienting, depending on the bar's hustle. What might ideally be a contemplative, leisurely experience is bound to feel awkward when the Thursday night crowd standing at the bar is greedily eyeing the seat you are occupying for a solid hour, the pacing of drinks beyond your control.
Yet, bartenders continue to find inspiration in this structured experience. Why did Blue Ribbon choose to institute a cocktail omakase? It came about after Wine Director Sam Erlich experienced a version during a recent trip to Japan. "He was just taken away by it," relays Kahawai. "He said, ‘Why couldn’t we invent some version of that?'"
The inspirational bar in question: Bar Gen Yamamoto, in Tokyo.
That’s right. When the U.S. wasn’t ready for the cocktail omakase, Japan certainly was. Yamamoto eventually relocated to Tokyo, where he set up an eponymous eight-seat bar specializing in progressive cocktail tasting menus, tailored to each guest. How ironic that six years later, just blocks away from where he started it all in New York’s West Village, the cocktail omakase is finally catching on.
Lead photo: Assorted cocktails from Los Angeles' The Walker Inn. [Photos by Katie Boink Photography.]