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Black Belt Mixology

Kara Newman - April 2010

Western bartenders are embracing the art and mystique of Japanese bar culture.

It's now possible to have a truly Japanese glass-of-whiskey experience without setting foot in the Land of the Rising Sun.

For starters, skip the Scottish Scotch and look for a Japanese brand, perhaps Suntory Yamazaki single malt. Expect the bartender to demonstrate the Japanese ritual of presenting the bottle: open it, wipe off any moisture, and in a fluid motion, gracefully present it, the label always facing the customer. If you're especially lucky, you may have the opportunity to witness the dramatic Japanese art of hand-carving ice into a large, perfectly polished ball, although round ice molds or a fancy machine may also accomplish the trick. Watch as the whiskey is gently poured over the rounded ice, and then swirled to chill, using an elegant, extra-long bar spoon with a trident on one end, an import from Japan.

Western bartenders are having a love affair with Japan's bar culture, bringing tools and techniques like the "hard shake" to bars across North America and Europe. And this trend is poised to grow quickly--especially once a key cocktail book written by Japanese master bartender Kazuo Uyeda, of Tokyo's Tender Bar, has been translated into English and published in the United States.

Cocktail Kingdom, an online purveyor of barware and reproductions of vintage cocktail books operated by Greg Boehm of Mud Puddle Books (see "Old Acquaintance, Unforgot," Food Arts, April 2009, page 53), last year purchased the English language rights to Uyeda's detailed book, Cocktail Technique. Translation began in November, and the book will be rushed out for publication in May. Uyeda will lead a two-day event to celebrate the release (see Events Calendar). His philosophy can be summed up in this excerpt from the chapter "The Way of the Cocktail"

…the flavor of the cocktail is a result not only of the actions taken by the bartender in mixing the cocktail, but also of the way the human brain works. For example, guests tend to be extremely aware of the cleanliness of bartenders and of their personalities. So, the clothes you wear, your manner of speaking, how you look at people, your focus, your hygiene--all of these things go into creating flavor. If, for whatever reason, a guest decides that he doesn't want a particular bartender to mix his drinks, then any cocktail that bartender serves him will, without a doubt, taste subpar, and the customer will probably never visit that bar again.

"What's admirable about Japanese bartending isn't the innovation, it's the refinement," explains Joaquin Simo, bartender at Death & Co. in New York City. "They take what we consider minutiae and extract differences from them, which is useful for bartending."

Consider, for example, the attention paid to cocktail-shaking techniques. Japanese mixology features seven different ways to shake cocktails, each with a specific impact on the temperature, texture, and body of the finished drink. The hard shake, created by Uyeda and popularized in the United States by Eben Freeman, former front man for the now-defunct Tailor in New York City, employs a figure eight movement. "It makes ice turn over on itself," Simo describes, "which shaves off the edges of the cubes and shapes them into spheres of ice, also creating a controlled dilution rate." The technique also produces the desirable blanket of ice shards floating atop a cocktail.

Advocates say that attention to detail extends to bar equipment, too. "America hasn't made a functional bar spoon, period," insists Andrew Bohrer, bar manager at Seattle's Mistral Kitchen. "They're all crap. They don't work right." Instead, he prefers to use a "delicate" Japanese spoon ordered from Cocktail Kingdom. "I can manipulate it with two fingers and make no sound at all." David Nelson, manager of Tavern Law, also in Seattle, echoes the sentiment: "I almost exclusively use Japanese barspoons for stirring because the weight and design are better suited to the hand. The tighter coil lets the spoon spin with ease and the small belly of the spoon moves easier with the ice so you get a more fluid motion."

Cut-glass Yarai mixing glasses from Japan have become a cult item, favored for their beauty as well as their superior stability over standard pint glasses. Bohrer describes the beakers as "indispensable," especially for easier stirring of beverages chilled with the oversized squares of Kold-Draft ice favored by many bars. Nelson agrees, emphasizing that "the glass is not only beautiful but stirring motion is more efficient."

Dasher bottles, ice picks, three-piece cobbler shakers, strainers, and artfully weighted, teardrop-shaped muddlers round out the wish list of Japanese tools for many bars, spotted at Death & Co. and PDT in New York City; Vessel, Mistral, and Tavern Law in Seattle; and 15 Romolo in San Francisco, where owner Scott Baird ordered Japanese barware kits for the entire bar staff. Even San Francisco catering company Rye on the Road purchased Japanese ice saws to use for specialty events.

The Japan bar movement has spread slowly by word of mouth in the Western world over the past two years. Some enthusiasts have viewed videos created by Hidetsugu Ueno, an English-speaking bartender who works at Tokyo's High Five bar. (Avoid confusing Ueno and Uyeda, one cocktailian warned. "It's like college basketball compared to Michael Jordan.")

But the trend has picked up speed thanks to Stanislav Vadrna, a self-proclaimed "Western disciple of Japanese bartending excellence" from Slovakia, who trained under Uyeda. In fact, Vadrna's seminar about Japanese bartending etiquette was among the hottest tickets at the 2009 Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans. In late 2009, Vadrna did a whistle-stop tour of New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle to demonstrate "The Japanese Way of Bartending" to packed rooms of mixologists.

While many devotees have never visited the country, some say a pilgrimage to Japan is the only way to truly study the technique. "It's amazing for any bartender to see, as much as it would be for any chef to study Japanese cooking but is often equally confusing and unreplicable," explains Angus Winchester, London-based drinks consultant and relentless world traveler. "The culture and the economics of the place are so different to Western bartending."

He also notes that the 3-ounce drinks are smaller and less boozy than Western equivalents, and, like other aspects of Japanese cuisine, made with stunning emphasis on visual impact, taking color, elaborate garnish, and glassware into account.

While some love the concept of detailed Japanese-style bar service, not everyone is sold, sniffing that such fussy presentation is impractical for a busy U.S. establishment. "Some of the famous bars in Japan have 12 seats and are members-only," Simo counters. "This level of ritual isn't feasible in New York bars. If you have 200 people at the Flatiron Bar on a Saturday, it's a much different pace."

And some scoff at the "trendy" adoption of Japanese cocktail culture. "I won't lie," Bohrer admits. "I'm showing off a little bit when I bring a block of ice to the chef's table to carve an ice ball. But in Japan, it's no big deal. It's the best way to serve the customer, so why do it any other way?"

That hospitality ethic is what's at the heart of Japan's cocktail culture, he says, not fancy theatrics and bar tricks. "Are you greeting the customer? Is the glass clean enough? It's 100 percent lost on most of the guys here that it's all about being a host."