There is something to be said for simplicity. Of course, there is also something to be said for complexity, so I am not sure how to balance those two extremes. There are usually at least two sides to every story and often so many more. So let’s take a look at things from both sides now as we stand and make the Umami Martini.
I am not, historically, a big fan of the Classic Martini. I have made friends with the Vesper version, the one with olive oil and Julia Childs’ favorite, but they just aren’t my thing. If I am going to enjoy a martini I want it dirty, which just means adding some olive brine. It brings a really lovely savory thing to an otherwise kind of boring drink. A classic martini may be a thing of beauty, but it is, perhaps, a little too simple for me. That gin and vermouth mixture just always leaves me wanting a little something more, which is why I figured it would be the perfect place to experiment with a new ingredient I stumbled upon in DC, Umami Bitters from The Japanese Bitters. So, what is umami? Well, let’s take their words for it.
“Umami, a savory taste, is one of the five basic tastes (together with sweet, sour, bitter and salty). A loanword from the Japanese, umami can be translated as “pleasant savory taste”. This particular writing was chosen by Professor Kikunae Ikeda from umai “delicious” and mi “taste”. The kanji 旨味 are used for a more general sense of a food as delicious.”The Japanese Bitters
When I spotted that elusive bottle, I was beyond intrigued. According to the label they are hand crafted from from natural alcohol, kelp, bonito flakes, and dried shiitake mushrooms. They smell like heaven and taste vaguely of fine ramen, so let’s see what they do to transform and elevate this simplest of cocktails.
Grab your mixing pitcher and toss in 2 ounces of gin, I chose Corsair; 1 ounce of dry vermouth, I went with Noilly Prat and 4-5 drops of Umami Bitters. Add some artisanal ice and give it a good long stir to the beat of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now“, because I said that up in the intro and now it is stuck in my head. When things are super chilled and properly diluted strain into a waiting cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon stuffed olive.
Isn’t that surprising? I almost like it. Two simple ingredients and one complex one results in something remarkably savory. This is like a super dirty martini with a saline edge to it that brings out the complexities in the vermouth and the gin. It is like the bitters have unlocked the frozen hearts of the spirits so they can bloom like some weird drinking sequence out of a Studio Ghibli film. Whatever it is, it works. It is still not my first choice, but it is really nice. I can tell that these bitters are going to be a lot of fun to experiment with. Maybe I will slip them into a Penicillin next to see how they play with the ginger.
I don’t remember having umami as a flavor when I was a child. What can I say, it was a simpler time. We did the best we could with sweet, sour, bitter and salty but we knew something was missing. It is funny how naming a thing can make it real. I am not complaining, obviously we enjoyed “pleasantly savory” tastes, we just did not know what to call them. Which is kind of weird, since Professor Ikeda actually coined the term in 1908. Not quite sure why it took us so long to embrace such a tasty concept, but I am glad to live in this glorious future where such wonders not only exist but are available in small vials of liquid joy, ready for experimentation. Speaking of that, I think I will go craft another “pleasantly savory” cocktail, y’all stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane my friends.