Japanese Bartending does still greatly influence bartenders in the Western hemisphere. An unparalleld attention to detail, sophisticated bar tools and shaking techniques are what we usually associate the Japanese art of bar with. Angus Winchester has been visiting Nippon’s best bars repeatedly and shares his observations.
I truly believe that there are such things are national bartending characteristics and styles. From the brash American bottle juggler to the urbane Italian and unruffled British bar steward we know what I mean, but most of these are simply caricatures and stereotypes. Yet there is one nation whose bartenders and bars totally represent the national psyche in every way. It has recently become an almost mythical land of zen bartending that many of us in the West try desperately to emulate. We are talking Japanese Bartending.
And in fact no national style of bartending is linked to the general national psyche more than the Japanese art of bar. In Japanese society in general it is engrained that everyone has a purpose which should be attempted as well as possible and that every action should be attempted in a way as to make it perfect. Perfectly efficient and perfectly beautiful. You notice this everywhere from the lack of litter in the streets to the efficiency of the transport systems to the elegance of the bartender’s actions.
Now I have to confess here that I am both a fan of and feel very linked to Japanese bartending. I first went to Tokyo over ten years ago and was literally gobsmacked by the style and poetic ballet of the Japanese bartending craft. Over the course of now eight visits to Japan I have watched, written about and videoed the awesome precision of its practitioners and the jaw dropping skills that seem standard in the scene there. I have watched as others (from Slovakia often but Greece and even Americans) have travelled and learnt and brought back their lessons and tools to wow their local crowds. Yet I have also seen a vast amount of disinformation that has come back, too, and felt that a short article may be useful to explain why the style is awesome yet so badly misunderstood.
Elegance, Professionalism and Precision
Cocktail bartending in Japan is a not just a modern phenomenon with American bartenders like Louis Eppinger working there at the turn of the century. Yet visit two bars and you will see elegance, professionalism and precision that is absent elsewhere. Every action is considered and thought out and the theatre with which every drink is created is truly unique. If bartending is like dancing with various styles and is possible for all, then while we in the West are shuffling like bored teenagers at a school dance then the Japanese are showing us Argentinian tango or ballet. Effortless and elegant and seemingly so simple, it is actually the result of literally years of practice and a very rigid hierarchy.
There is a sense of apprenticeship in Japanese professions where, if there is a craft or skill to be learned, then it must be learned from a teacher or master over many years. Yet bartenders from around the world try desperately to copy these action and philosophies without truly understanding or learning them properly in the “quick and dirty” attitude that is so prevalent in the West.
The Japanese art of bartending is unique as it has developed, as Hidetsugu Ueno describes it, as “Galapagos Islands style”. “It simply hasn’t been influenced by other countries for a very long time”, says Ueno. “We don’t use Boston or tin shakers, we haven’t done muddle and double strain kind of mixology. Because we didn’t know anything about the outside for a long time, I guess the Japanese bartender has a much more artisan approach. Like a teacher and student kind of thing – so you listen to the master, you work for the master and are taught by the master. A traditional artisan kind of job.”
Master and Student
This synergy between master and student is visible in almost every aspect of the Japanese bartending culture. Every bartender has a master, and even if they surpass them, they will always show respect to them. When learning they may train for ten years to learn from their master and may not even make drinks for the first few years. They learn about hospitality and hosting long before they can shake a cocktail.
I have been lucky enough in my travels to meet many masters such as Saichi Sato in Osaka, Hoshi-San, Ueda-san, Kishi-San and of course Ueno-San. Ueno-San enjoys a key role in the understanding of Japanese Bartending as he speaks English fluently. This is not a trait shared by many other Japenese bar entrepreneurs. All masters are gracious, talented and for the most part great fun characters. Immaculately dressed yet often matching you drink for drink they are worth making the pilgrimage to see.
The Signature Shake
In such a closed world envelope shredding innovation is not admired as much as refinement and perfecting known techniques. Thus it is aspects like ice ball and diamond carving and increasingly complicated shakes like the Hard Shake that Japan’s mixologists aspire to. And again Ueno-san has it right when he says: “The main purpose of the Hard Shake is to put a lot of air into the ingredients and the drink. It makes the drink lighter and easy to drink. But the Hard Shake in my country is not a common technique. It is a very difficult technique. I would say that less than ten people in the world can do it the right way with the right purpose.” They’re not interested in the world of Molecular Mixology or crazy culinary cocktails. Instead they cultivate to perfection stirring methods and the development of a signature shake. All Japanese bartenders have a wonderfully eccentric shake that they will explain to you if necessary.
In the West some bartenders have become something like rockstars whereas modesty is prized in Japan. The best bartenders are among the most silent when working, so that they do not disrupt the guest’s experience. They are far more like a theatrical performance with an average ratio of perhaps four guest to each staff member. The bars themselves are not garish large places but small bars tucked away well of the street via small and discrete doors. The best bars fit the fewest people seemingly and survive by word of mouth and a small group of regulars that have favourite bartenders. In these places they wield their tools (tools figure hugely in japan with personal knives, shakers and the like being very important) with well-practiced skills and effortless grace.
It is almost impossible to describe Japanese Bartending to someone without them actually visiting a Japanese bar. It is so elegant and so beautiful to watch in situ and yet does not “travel” well. Because Western Guests often just do not have the patience or the points of reference to understand it outside Japan. It is truly ballet or opera. Its highbrow bartending for the most part and while it may not be to everyone’s taste it’s well worth experiencing at least once in your life.
This article was first published in MIXOLOGY Issue 3/2011.