How Japanese Bartenders Have Changed the Craft Cocktail Game

A Japanese bartender.
Japanese bartending is about patience, precision and politeness. Photo via Flickr/Kent Wang.

When it comes to producing spirits, Japan is defined by meticulous execution. The art of brewing a masterful junmai sake; the precision with which they distill and age their revered whiskies; an attention to detail performed with a zen-like spirituality. It should come as no surprise that their approach to bartending is equally as elevated.

Omotenashi is the Japanese term for hospitality, and it informs every aspect of their approach to customer experience — from the moment you're individually greeted upon entry to the last sip of your cocktail. Bartenders strive to make their guests leave a little happier than when they arrived. “The search for constant improvement in Japanese culture really showcases their belief in every aspect of what they do,” says Nick Jones, lead bartender at Pabu Izakaya in San Francisco. “This translates into a pursuit of perfection that becomes a style of bartending, which Japan is known for.”

This is a country wherein politeness and good manners are the rule. To do things any other way isn’t just unseemly, it's nothing short of heresy. As an extension of that culture, the bartenders focus the experience on you, not them. “It tends to be more quiet and subtle compared to other styles from around the world,” notes Jones. No frenetic shaking or other overly-demonstrative displays of flash — here, it is subdued, somewhat serene, even. No two bartenders will do it in the exact same way. Their shake is their signature, the result of years of rehearsal.

Without exception, ingredients are laid out along the bar as the drink is prepared, labels facing the customer. The liquid is stirred with a deafening silence, absent of nary a single clink of ice. It is a purpose-driven process, wherein the technique is valued as much as its cumulative conclusion. The folks practicing this art have devoted their entire lives to that end. This isn’t a temporary gig. Your level of enjoyment is a reflection of their degree of passion; their life’s work, poured into every glass.

Beyond the presentation and hospitality is an obsessive devotion to ingredients. “It’s just the search for simplicity,” explains Shige Kabashima, owner and beverage director of ROKC in New York. “For example, a sushi chef uses only two ingredients which are the Neta, the non-rice part of the sushi, and Shari, the rice part of the sushi. What sushi chefs want out of the two ingredients is not 1 + 1 = 2. With combining the two ingredients they want to bring out 1 + 1 = 10. And that can be the same to bartending.” This applies, of course, to the base spirits. But then there's sophisticated garnishes: bamboo leaves, flower petals and zest in origami-like arrangements, introducing gentle aromas into the glass.

“Let’s say gin and tonic,” Kabashima uses an example. “When you pour the tonic, you don’t pour on the ice, but pour directly and gently into gin. By doing that, gin can get mixed well with the force of carbonation, and there is no need to mix them with a bar spoon. At the end, squeeze some fresh lime cut, and that’s how you make the gin and tonic taste stay crisp until you drink up."

Perhaps nothing epitomizes the country’s compassion for ingredients so much as their ice fetish. Pristine blocks of frozen water are typically delivered at the beginning of each day, chiseled down to a desired size, by hand, as it is required — into spheres, faceted diamonds, even the chunks used in the shaker are carved off, individually. “Japanese ice is an art unto itself,” says Alan Kropf, executive director of education at Anchor Distilling, who recently directed a short film about the craft of Japanese cocktails (below). “It is mesmerizing to watch the Japanese bartenders shape and work with ice, and it’s amazing to consider that they use different temperatures of ice in a single cocktail to achieve the desired result.” A rare and foreign contraption is the ice machine at a Japanese bar. Like everything else in cocktail preparation here, this requires patience and focus. Even so, their approach to ice, in particular, has profoundly swayed Western mixology. Says Kabashima, “I [am starting to see] bartenders here use the large shaped ices that don’t contain air and that are insoluble. [This is] influenced from Japanese bartending.”

"When I think of Japanese philosophies in bartending I think of the word Kaizen, Japanese for ‘improvement,’” says Jones. "The precision, and perfection in the movement of bartending truly becomes an art form and makes the art of making a drink just as special as what you are drinking. This contribution has helped move the cocktail era and push other bartenders to think about the art of drink making as a form of entertainment.”

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