Japan's Bartending Debate

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Photo by bryangeek/Flickr CC

The first time I tried to carve an ice ball to cool premium Scotch or Bourbon, the result was, shall we say, less than satisfactory. After 15 minutes of freezing my hand off, chipping away with an ice pick, this misshapen stone was anything but circular and, what's worse, because I kept lop-siding the ball I wheedled it down to half the size of the rocks glass. Therefore, my masterpiece sat like any other "rock' in the glass only with a vaguely oblong shape. As I sat before Kishi Hisashi at the Star Bar, another of Tokyo's ace bars, and he carved diamond shaped ice with a fish knife, I felt more than a little crest-fallen.

Kishi-san joked that Hidetsugo Ueno of High Five Bar does it better. Better? What is better then a perfectly shaped ice diamond? Yet perfectionism describes the attention Kishi-san uses in his drinks. When I asked for an Adonis, one of my favorite cocktails of all time, he started by spraying water on to the ice and then pouring it out. When I asked what he's doing, he replied that he's cleaning the ice.

I think of that hand-carved, washed ice in relation to the toilet-basin, watery, and chipped ice that most bartenders use, and am amazed but no longer surprised at how serious the bartenders I meet in Japan take their craft. But they have their gripes too. A conversation I had over and over again with Japanese bartenders, is the debate between bartenders and those who call themselves mixologists.

As we found elsewhere in Japan, the bartenders are first rate and charming, but there is a difference.

Now if you remember, I wrote on this subject a little while ago, but how it manifests in Japan is a little different. The diamond-ice carving set of classic bartenders bemoaned the muddling upstarts who defined themselves as mixologists. One bartender would mockingly twist his hand into his palm to demonstrate their technique.

So I decided to visit one of the dens of grilled and muddled fruits, Bar Rage, and experience it first hand. Globetrotting mixologist Angus Winchester, who was kind enough to provide me with an excellent list of Japanese bars to visit, described this as the "new wave" of Japanese bartending.

When I arrive, the scene is a familiar one: well-dressed bartenders in a small, handsome room. The now common hot towel greets me only this one is scented with menthol or eucalyptus. My sinuses are grateful, as I do feel refreshed and better prepared for the culinary-influenced concoctions. Knowing that the bartenders do not speak English, I start by asking for omakase, which sushi-eaters may recognize as seasonal, chef-driven dishes. The bartender, um, I mean mixologist pulls out a bowl of fruit. I choose passion fruit.

As we found elsewhere in Japan, the bartenders are first rate and charming, but there is a difference. The torch comes out first as manager and bartender Ezaki Hideo sprinkles brown sugar on top of a sliced passion fruit and precedes to brulee the half-cut fruit. Followed by muddling the other half, vodka, lemon and cane sugar. The fruit shone through perfectly; bruleed passion fruit, brilliant.

More cocktails follow, including muddled Japanese grapes and one with clam juice (I didn't see him muddle the clams). Each one was similar in style, letting the ingredients rule the glass. Here the star is innovation and ingredients, not technique and flavor--culinary trumps classic.

In both the classic and the mixology approach, detail and showmanship are valued. So there is a line that draws the two. Yet I wonder how these approaches will play out in time. While I enjoy the mixologists at work, and believe their skills first rate, I'm not a vodka and passion fruit drinker. I enjoyed my drink at Bar Rage thoroughly, and got what I asked for, but afterwards we sneak over to Bar High Five.

At Bar High Five, Daiki Kanetaka greets us and makes me an Alaska that, apart from ice, has only two ingredients--gin and green Chartreuse. The drink is beautifully herbaceous and as sharply cold as a samurai blade on the tongue. Here the debate is solved. I can live without diamond ice and bruleed fruit, but give me a well-made cocktail and the future looks fine to me.

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Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.
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