Master mixologist Masahiro Urushido has a secret: The owner of one of New York City's coolest cocktail bars, Katana Kitten, doesn't actually drink cocktails.
"I drink martinis," he told me recently, chuckling. "I drink lots of cheap beer." But as someone who imbibes daily, he draws the line at sugary cocktails. He confesses all this while pouring me several, which I slurp up happily. Because there's a reason he's one of the most well-known bartenders in Tokyo and New York: Those famous drinks are good. Like, really good.
Growing up in a small town in the countryside of Japan, Urushido had a long road before he landed in New York, opening the Japanese-American bar of his dreams — a dive bar-cocktail lounge hybrid.
"I love American dive bar culture," he said. "You walk in, you smell that beer-stained wood, a popcorn machine. The energy of the bar echoes the energy of the neighborhood. A beautiful mix of guests filling the room, some with a meticulous cocktail while others are just drinking beer. Old and young. That's what makes a bar."
That intergenerational, something-for-everyone attitude towards hospitality is immediately apparent at Katana Kitten, where Urushido is serving up a taste of his hometown specific enough to be a temporary cure for homesickness. He hasn't been back to Japan since January 2020, right before the world shut down. And now, with the Tokyo Olympics underway, Urushido is watching all the action in his home country from afar. But on the menu at Katana Kitten, he serves crispy chicken just the way his grandmother makes it.
"It's very authentic," he said. "Honest and unpretentious." This delicately fried chicken, served on a skewer in chunks that are shatteringly crispy yet somehow also light, seemed rather elaborate to me. But to Urushido, it's home cooking, a dish he and his younger brothers enjoyed all the time. "Simple is best."
Living with his grandparents as a kid, Urushido learned to cook from his maternal grandmother, whom he still calls once a week. Little Urushido watched her in the kitchen, where "she was doing lots of cooking and lots of talking," he laughed. He cherished seeing her annotations in cookbooks. Now he has a cookbook of his own, "The Japanese Art of the Cocktail," co-authored with Michael Anstendig, that he is dying to show her in person. He said the opportunity to write a book was a beautiful chance to reflect on his past.
"Talking to my co-author Michael, it was like a new discovery of little things I didn't really appreciate at the time. All these memories traced back, realizing why Grandma and Grandpa used to do things in a certain way." Certain flavors, smells and seasonings, he says, are imprinted in his brain from childhood and continue to serve as sources of inspiration for his menus. "Now I really appreciate a countryside upbringing. When you're a kid in the country you're like, 'Oh, I want to live in the city,' so that's what I did. But if I was born and raised in the city, I wouldn't have had this interesting life."
At Katana Kitten, a Suntory highball machine spits out perfect drinks faster than my SodaStream at home. Urushido says they're ubiquitous at bars in Japan, where highballs are the most popular drink style. He's devoted to Suntory Toki for the whisky he uses (he is also an ambassador for the brand): "It was designed specifically for use in highballs and cocktails, and it performs spectacularly," he writes in his book.
A little history about Japan's oldest whisky distillery: The House of Suntory was founded in 1923 by a man named Shinjiro Torii. Western influence had begun trickling into everyday Japanese life, and inspired by traditional Scottish whisky, Torii wanted to take a Japanese approach. The result? Well, TODAY Senior International Correspondent Keir Simmons compared them this way: “You drink a Scotch whisky, it's like you have reached in, taken a bunch of mud in the highlands of Scotland and put it in your mouth. This is like you are standing on a mountain in Japan.”
Torii’s son, Keizo Saji, built on his father’s legacy in the 1950s. He helped make the Suntory highball Japan's drink of choice in the thousands of "Tory's Bars" that functioned as popular after-work gathering places. "It is the rocket engine that propelled whisky back to mainstream popularity in Japan and continues to fuel its growth," Urushido writes.
Today, Suntory highballs are served in bars all over the world. But you don't have to have one of their proprietary highball machines to get a taste. Urushido was kind enough to share his top tips for making the perfect one at home.
"You want everything cold, including the glass, and including that bottle of whisky. Stick them in the freezer and stick your soda water in the fridge. By the way, with that soda water, you want good carbonation so you can mix the drink nice and gentle. Pack the ice in the glass for the look of it — (bad) ice just floats on top." Don't even get Urushido started on ice: This is a man who has carved countless perfect ice spheres from blocks with a single-pronged ice pick — and has the scars to prove it. But, he insists, for the rest of us, "Any ice is fine. It's casual."
Urushido also shared a cocktail recipe for the vodka drinkers out there from his book, plus recipes for the perfect snacks to pair them with. I'm not sure which is more addictive: his Mortadella Katsu Sando or his Panda Fizz. Either way, you'll want it all on the menu while you watch the Olympics with family or friends.
Urushido's grandmother, to whom we owe much of this deliciousness, is turning 96 on Aug. 20. We toasted to her. Kanpai!