Japan’s best known bartender, Hidetsugu Ueno, frowns over his spectacles as he shaves strips of ice with a razor-sharp blade. In barely a minute, a raw chunk of ice is transformed into a jewel: an ice diamond carved with such precision that each facet catches the light and glistens like a precious gem. While it’s not surprising that the home of the tea ceremony has mastered the theatrical cocktail shake — or that the land of origami also boasts a mean way with a garnish — the art on display in Ginza’s Bar High Five is awe-inspiring.
Japanese bartending evolved, as Ueno puts it, “Galapagos Islands style” — in isolation from the trends that shaped bartending for the rest of the world. Japan, for two centuries a secretive empire that restricted foreigners to an artificial island off the shores of Nagasaki, reopened its doors in the 1850’s. By 1890 a man named Louis Eppinger, who had worked in San Francisco, California, and Portland, Oregon, started introducing the American cocktail. (Eppinger’s signature creation, the Bamboo, features a very un-Japanese ingredient: sherry.)
From Eppinger, Japan’s bartenders developed their own, highly distinctive style of bartending, handed down through the generations in an apprenticeship system. The formula has gained notice across Asia and, increasingly, in the Western hemisphere: You’ll find Japanese-style bars as far afield as Melbourne and Paris, Beijing and Dallas. On arrival, a hot towel, nibbles, and a glass of water are presented with the utmost care. The ritual that follows is intimate, personal, theatrical and leisurely. Most classic Japanese cocktail bars offer seated-service only.
It’s the slow pace of Japanese bartending, says bar guru Simon Difford of Diffordsguide.com, rather than its fondness for the retro three-piece shaker over the glass-and-tin combo, that most distinguishes it from the Anglo-American tradition.
“The most dramatic difference between Japanese and Western bartending is the number of guests each bartender is expected to serve, and the comparable time to make each drink,” says Difford. “In some bars in Japan, there is one bartender for every eight to 12 guests — and some venues have a capacity of just a dozen or so. Consequently, they have time to lavish each guest with a style of bartending that is almost theatrical.”
It’s certainly hard to imagine one of the most traveled innovations in Japanese bartending — the hand-carved ice ball — emerging in a London or New York City bar where countless patrons might line the service counter on a Friday night after work.
While every Japanese bartender starts to cultivate their own particular shaking style before they even step behind the stick, it is the “hard shake,” developed by Kazuo Uyeda of Tender Bar, that has journeyed farthest. Ironically, it’s far from a vigorous shake, and just one of a range of eight or nine styles of shake Japanese bartenders have in their repertoire. Each is designed to aerate the cocktail in different ways, while creating differently sized and even-shaped shards of ice that form a delicate layer on the surface of the drink.
To watch a Japanese master bartender in action is to witness a restrained grace that’s as elegant as a ballet. Yet, says Ueno, every variation has a purose. Many Western bartenders who attempt the Japanese style fall down because, “they try to imitate what they see with their eyes, but don’t understand the reasons behind the actions.”
Novices acquire these delicate arts in that most traditional way: the apprenticeship. As with much older crafts and artisan practices — be they bonsai or sword-smithing — most Japanese bartenders still learn from a teacher or “master.” At Star Bar, a cocktail-centric spot in Ginza that helped launch the career of Hidetsugo Ueno, an apprentice may work for several years before he (and it usually is a he) gets to prepare a drink for a customer.
The apprenticeship system encourages an approach that centers on lifelong learning. ANA InterContinental Tokyo provides its bartenders with multiple venues to showcase –– and practice –– their skills. At the hotel’s 36th floor MIXX Bar & Lounge, for example, the focus is on contemporary molecular cocktails. ANA InterContinental Tokyo’s bartender Kazuya Nishimura spent three years as an apprentice, but says, “Even now I am learning a lot from my colleagues — and from my guests, too.”
At the heart of it all lies a most Japanese concept: “omotenashi.” It’s a word that appears simply to mean hospitality, yet encompasses an entire philosophy, centered on politeness, respect and attention to detail.
The bartending ritual is about so much more than crafting a drink: It means creating a moment of sophistication that will make a lasting impression on the guest.
To experience Tokyo’s countless bespoke bars with insider knowledge from a dedicated local team, consider booking Club InterContinental at ANA InterContinental Tokyo for a new level of personalized service.