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Battle of the Bars: Japan vs. America


Photo by Ken30684/Flickr CC

I have to admit that after a trip to the High Five Bar, I'm swooning over the "Japanese Way" of bartending. Perhaps it leads me to my biggest faux pas of the evening. When assistant bartender Karita Kazuki of Tender Bar asks me whether I think American bartenders or Japanese bartenders are better, I begrudgingly say, "Japanese."

My wife reminds me that my decision may be guided more by fascination than fact, and I need to learn more before I let my gimlet do the talking. But the truth is, after visiting the top bars in Tokyo I believe that these bars have a sense of detail and service that rivals if not bests America's top bars, at least the ones I know and frequent.

When I order a Blood and Sand, he comments through his assistant that it's a classic that is rarely ordered by his regular clientele. Still, it is perfectly made.

What really went to my head isn't necessarily the alcohol but watching Tender Bar's master bartender Kazuo Ueda's rigorous "hard shake," which has been described in detail elsewhere. It's mesmerizing and the result is undeniably delicious. His gimlet is made of Gordon's gin, fresh lime juice and sugar syrup, which some would argue is not a true gimlet except that when you take a sip you're transported--this is a gimlet. The aromatic profile is a tad more generous then using preserved lime but the consistency is weighty and seamless. Sailors would have been lucky to drink this cocktail on a long voyage.

Tender Bar is a sleek, stylish lounge with an army of white-tuxedo-clad bartenders catering to fewer than 35 seats. Despite the language barrier, Ueda-san is a marvelous host. His interest in his guests is high. Ueda-san congratulates us upon learning that we were recently married. When I order a Blood and Sand, he comments through his assistant that it's a classic that is rarely ordered by his regular clientele. Still, it is perfectly made.

Ueda-san has been bartending for 45 years, graduating Bartending School in 1966. He is a spry 64 years old. He further learned as an apprentice to Mr. Kiyoshi Imai, also known as "Mr. Martini." The craft of bartending in Japan is something young bartenders must study and perfect before they gain Ueda's post. Ueda-san is both the head bartender/owner of Tender Bar since 1996 and very active in the Japanese bartending community, and he's published several books.

The craft of bartending reached Japan at the height of America's bartender culture, at the end of the 19th century. Some would argue that a German bartender, Louis Eppinger, who tended bar in San Francisco and was a contemporary of the great William "Cocktail Bill" Boothby, helped to bring the craft to the island when he managed the Grand Hotel in Yokohama. What was forcefully abandoned here by prohibition was gleefully embraced in Japan, where it has overtones of the tea ceremony and sushi counters. They have copied classic bartending culture perfectly while adding their own cultural touches.

Regardless of my fascination, I do retract my statement. The U.S. has some of the best bartenders in the world, but the point is taken--the world has learned our craft and taken lessons to heart that some American bartenders have long forgotten. Fortunately, it's not a competition, and we can learn from each other. If you make it to Tokyo, drop by Tender Bar and enjoy the education of bartending master Kazuo Ueda by the glass.