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Friday, Jan. 25, 2008
Tokyo hones the craft of the cocktail
"The best bartenders on the planet all work in Ginza," claims Masahiro Kon, ex-bartender and award-winning cocktail creator. "In the U.S., they're mixing drinks with herbs and other weird ingredients, but in Ginza the best guys just polish their cocktails like jewels."
So Kon takes me to the luxury Tokyo playground. On Sotobori-dori, Bar Tender (5F, 6-5-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku;  3571-8349) is a sedate lounge bar in which staff sport cream cocktail jackets and hairstyles that wouldn't twitch in a wind tunnel. With their pinky fingers cocked, they meticulously pour ingredients into silver-plated cocktail shakers. Then, as though somebody suddenly pressed fast-forward, they burst into full-throttle, elbow-thrashing shakes.
By the time they slam the liquid into its glass, the ice has splintered, and the drink is almost a frappe.
This is the Hard Shake, a technique invented by Bar Tender owner Kazuo Ueda two decades ago and now part of global bartending folklore. Kon says that when he competed in a cocktail world championship, his international rivals asked him to teach them the "Japanese shake," referring to Ueda's invention. The technique even won Ueda a standing ovation in a Manhattan bar long ago.
But unlike most bar-room theatrics, the Hard Shake was the product of gourmet perfectionism. Its inventor says it helps blend stubborn ingredients, such as cream or egg whites, aerates the drink by whipping tiny bubbles into it, and cools it by dramatically increasing the surface area of the ice.
The 63-year-old bartender says that his drinks are 5-7 degrees C colder than usual, and believes that aeration brings out the flavors. Decades of experimentation have honed the optimal wrist snap and helped Ueda identify the alcohol brands that best lend themselves to hard shaking — often cheap 'n' cheerful standards such as Bacardi and Smirnoff.
Ueda agrees with Kon's theory of Japanese bartending supremacy. "Foreign bartenders always want to do new things," he says. "Japanese ones want to perfect the classics. Mixology looks fun, but I'm analog."
Analog bartending school begins with a year of nothing but cleaning. "It polishes the mind," explains the boss. When their minds are buffed to a sparkle, aspiring bartenders spend up to two more years learning to measure spirits by eye.
Such fastidiousness can be found all across Ginza. Two blocks away in Y&M Kisling, (7F, 7-5-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku;  3573-2071) another demure lounge with bartenders in cream cocktail jackets preparing drinks, pinky fingers cocked, owner Nobuo Abe also says it takes three years to learn the basics of bartending, adding that it takes a decade to become "satisfactory," and more than 20 years to become a meister.
"Imagine if a bar owner anywhere else said, 'I want you to just make ice balls for the next six months,' " says my other Ginza drinking companion, Tokyo-based vodka brand manager and ex-bartender Tom Huskinson, who then suggests an expletive that a trainee might use in reply. Huskinson learned about the high level of Japanese bartending when he flew in a foreign vodka expert to talk to local drinksmiths. The lecture bombed, he says. "People already knew it all. The detail that they want to know here is profound."
As Ueda explains to me why his gimlets come in champagne saucers (wider, flatter, more room for ice) and as Abe tweezers gold leaf into his cocktails and pours them until the meniscus bulges out of the glass, Kon's claim is convincing.
Ginza clearly has some world-class bartenders, but one of Tokyo's very best plies her trade in the gaudy streets of Shibuya. Opposite a bar named Crazy Hours Girl Bar, Kuro Tsuki (3F, 33-10 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku) hides behind an anonymous copper door. Owner Rikako Nitta is an alcohol savant who stocks only the finest brands. "I buy the drinks I'd want to drink," she explains. So it's 23-year-old Ron Zacapa for rum, small batch 1792 Ridgemont Reserve for bourbon and Hussongs reposado as the house tequila. Nitta tells me that bartending is like the Japanese tea ceremony. And like being a sushi chef. And like running a fine Japanese restaurant.
I ask her to make me the drink of her choice, and she mixes a bright orange cocktail of 42 Below vodka, Eyguebelle apricot brandy and fresh orange juice. Its name, she assures me, is "Orange Cocktail." The drink takes around five minutes to prepare and arrives so perfectly blended that not one of the ingredients dominates.
Like her Ginza peers, Nitta considers herself a lifelong student of her craft. Pins on her blazer signify her credentials as a cheese, wine and cigar aficionado, as well as a thirst for certification that few foreign bartenders share.
But as with so much else in Japan, Kon tells me that there's a younger generation less enamored with the orthodoxy and more interested in creativity. Mari Kamata, for example, senior bartender at The Peninsula Tokyo hotel's Peter bar (Peninsula Tokyo 24F, 1-8-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku;  6270-2763) in Hibiya, an ice cube throw from Ginza, says without hesitation that she prefers creating original cocktails.
Where the classic Japanese bartender shows his creativity by dropping the bitters from a Manhattan, or lowering the temperature of a gimlet, Kamata's signature drink is the electric pink Tokyo Joe, a Bombay Sapphire base with ume (Japanese plum) liqueur, cranberry juice, Drambuie and lemon. It's served in an attention-grabbing vessel that resembles the bowl of a martini glass nestling on a 16 cm-tall silver picket fence.
It's hard to imagine the old guard serving this — holding a glass by the bowl would warm the drink slightly — but the tradeoff in showmanship works for Peter's customers. "We're a new bar, not a traditional one," explains Kamata. "We need new, original cocktails."
But Kamata's enthusiasm for innovation hasn't dented her knowledge of the classics: "A great bartender needs to hate losing. I studied hard for years so that I'd be able to match any customer demands."
I ask Kamata if she thinks Japanese bartenders are the best in the world. "Definitely," she replies. "I went to Harry's Bar in Venice to try their (renowned) Bellini. It wasn't so great."