If the first thing you think of when you see the name “the Japalac” is an unfortunate racial slur that is now fortunately mostly relegated to old movies about World War II, you can be forgiven. Cocktail historian Ted Haigh unearthed the drink earlier this century and calls its name a “gut-level red herring” because it was actually named for a type of varnish produced by the Glidden company. Jap-A-Lac was named for Japan drier, a product still in use that Wikipedia tell us that borrows its name from the term “japanning,” “the use of drying oils as an imitation or substitution for urushiol based Japanese lacquer.”
While these kind of terms make us think of the sort of cultural appropriation that followed back in the day when non-European countries suddenly emerged into the Western cultural context to be pop-culturalized in all sorts of fascinating and problematic ways, there’s no getting around the fact that the Japalac carries some odd associations. Still, I think we can find a way to enjoy without offending either people of Japanese ancestry or, for that matter, myself, since — at least in the broadest possible outlines — I was once arguably a Jewish-American Prince.
Well, that’s enough backstory, let’s get to the drink which really ain’t bad at all, though your choice of ingredients can make a more enormous difference than usual.
3/4 ounce rye whiskey
3/4 dry vermouth
1/2 ounce fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon raspberry syrup
1 orange twist (garnish)
Combine the whiskey, vermouth, juice and syrup in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously and strain into chilled, relatively small, cocktail glass — this is a drink of the sensibly modest size that was once the standard. Add the orange twist and sip relatively slowly and quietly. Remember not to say “Japalac” too loudly in a public place, lest you be misunderstood.
First of all, I was forced to depart from Ted Haigh’s recipe…in a sense. For starters, it calls for “juice of 1/4 orange.” I have a bone to pick with such non-specific instructions since oranges come in all sizes and levels of juiciness, so I settled on 1/2 an ounce…which turns out to have required about a fourth of the particular oranges I was using, so I guess Haigh’s not completely insane.
The possibly bigger departure was that I used Torani raspberry syrup, which is typically used for coffee-house style Italian sodas as well as cocktails, and it worked out just fine. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that, as I learned last year, Mr. Haigh typically prefers the sort of raspberry syrup that was traditionally used as a substitute for grenadine, and which is made by companies like Smuckers and more closely resembles jam without any fruit. Alas, four visits to area markets reveals that there appears to be some kind of Smucker’s Raspberry Syrup drought out here in the San Fernando Valley area, though boysenberry and strawberries flavors are easy to come by, if that’s your thing.
In any case, while I tried the Japalac with four different types of rye — Rittenhouse, Bulleit, Alberta Dark Rye, and George Dickel — the really big difference was apparently made by the orange. Indeed, my first attempt was pretty much ruined by my choice of a grapefruit-esque cara cara orange. Later attempts with some very sweet navel oranges changed the tenor of the drink completely, making it more of a sweet and fruity treat. I think I liked the Alberta Dark Rye/navel juice version the best, though George Dickel Rye, and a slightly less sweet navel orange was almost perfectly balanced.
Finally, let’s get back to the name. While it’s true there was no anti-Japanese malice that we know of in the naming of today’s DOTW, the term “Japan drier” from whence the Jap-a-Lac varnish got it’s name, clearly harks back to late 19th century, when the West and East Asia were engaged in the beginning of a long love-hate relationship. The result of the early honeymoon period was at least two operas, Puccini’s tragic “Madama Butterfly” and Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic “The Mikado.” I’m more of a comedy guy, so let’s drink to the topsy turvy folks who gave us that one.