Across the world’s major cocktail capitals, mixology has reached its baroque stage. Drinks are kissed with homemade tinctures, bitters, and molecular gastronomy-inspired techniques, and when it comes to ingredients, you’re as likely to see citrus on the menu as you are butter and hay liquor (Grain Store), quince jelly (The Dead Rabbit), and even chicken bones (White Lyan). While historical mixology is in vogue, with many in the industry taking inspiration from bartenders of yore like ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson, throwback drinks are more likely to be modernised, gussied up versions of the classics. And yet, it’s still possible to step back in time for a taste of true classic cocktail making and all of its trappings: discreet bars (sans the tired trope of passwords and secret entrances), simple and timeless drinks recipes, and bartenders who spend their lives honing their craft. All have you to do is book a ticket to Tokyo and discover the art of Japanese cocktails.
It might surprise Western imbibers to know that Tokyo is one of the world’s most prominent, even essential, cocktail cities. But for Japan’s top barkeeps, making classic, refined, and perfectly balanced cocktails is nothing less than the art of drink-making. Though it wasn’t always considered a respectable job, bartending has, in recent decades, gained a new, artisanal cachet. Long apprenticeships are common for those pursuing high-level work, with years devoted to cleaning, basic skills like free pouring, and ice carving before a trainee even gets close to the cocktail menu. Think of it as the Jiro Dreams of Sushi school of mixology: the Tokyo bartender can spend decades polishing his or her techniques before being considered a master.
But how did this haven of artful, even conservative bartending come about? Cocktails first arrived in Tokyo’s grand hotels during the Meiji period, which coincided with Pre-Prohibition culture in the US and abroad, and the Japanese quickly developed a taste for drinks like the White Lady, Sidecar, and Singapore Sling. But given that this is Japan, drink-making came to have its own unique associated rituals and techniques.
For one: the higher levels of alcohol that are favoured in the West are often forfeited in favour of balance. Each cocktail’s appearance matters greatly, and pastel shades are preferred over neon-hued concoctions. And service is of the highest importance: within the quiet sanctity of the city’s top bars, bartenders lay out all of their tools and ingredients in front of the customer before getting to work, hand-select the correct ice cubes one by one, and walk visitors to the door to say goodbye, even when the bar is full.
One of Japan’s most important bartenders of the past twenty years is the inimitable Hidetsugu Ueno, an industry legend who spent years at Star Bar before moving to Ginza’s Bar High Five. With his trademark slicked back bouffant, 1920s-style braces, and warm but terrifically honed manner behind the bar, it’s easy to see how he’s become so inextricably linked with Japanese cocktails. At Bar High Five, his array of drinks adapts constantly to ingredients that are in season, and Ueno is at his best when gauging the preferences of his clientele before mixing up classic choices. Famed for his White Lady, Ueno is also known for hand-carving blocks of crystal-clear ice into 14-faceted diamonds, quickly whittling them into pristine shapes. It’s no surprise that thirsty patrons trek from far off climes for a glimpse of his artistry.
Kazuo Uyeda is another top name in Tokyo bartending. Based out of his own venue, Bar Tender, he’s especially well known for his pioneering three- or four-point ‘hard shake’ technique. It’s a striking feat to witness in person: Uyeda looks almost machine-like as he pitches his shaker at blurred speeds before slowly chugging to a stop. The impressive technique was devised in order to get drinks colder, faster; the brutal shaking breaks off tiny ice shards that dilute cocktails to the right consistency. It also works well for cream- and egg-based drinks, helping to emulsify the ingredients to the proper degree of froth.
Below, see Kazuo Uyeda’s skills in action:
In addition to these two giants of Japanese bartending, a number of other Tokyo mixologists are helping to solidify the city’s top-notch reputation. Shinobu Ishigaki at Ishinohana Bar, Manabu Ohtake at the Cerulean Tower Tokyo Hotel (a recent winner of Diageo’s World’s Class Bartender of the Year award), and Hisashi Kishi at Star Bar are only a few of the skilled mixologists working to make Tokyo an unmissable drinks destination.
So, don’t come to Tokyo expecting fits of flare, boundary-pushing ingredients, and hefty alcohol bombs. But do come for an unparalleled reminder of the beauty and the skill of old-fashioned bartending, interpreted through a uniquely Japanese lens.
Feature image © Design Pics/Thinkstock
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