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Friday, May 22, 2009
A purist at work behind the bar
"A bar is no place for a woman. The important characters are always men."
Now that I have your attention, allow me to introduce Charles Schumann, who produced that quote in an interview with German Playboy some years back. Schumann is one of Europe's star bartenders. He runs an eponymous bar in Munich that serves movie stars and Chancellors. He is the author of "American Bar," which The New York Times described as "the drink mixer's bible." His is the face of Hugo Boss's Baldessarini menswear range and formerly of Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto. At 69, he is still dashing enough to join Jessica Alba in a cooler- than-ice Campari ad currently screening in Europe and the United States.
"I said that?" he asks, when I mention his Playboy quote. "Many years ago, maybe.
"But I have the same opinion now. I say they can come, but they are not wanted. The old journalists who came to my bar would say, 'Children, don't talk to us when we're whisky drinking.' "
He's joking, of course. But only a little bit.
We're sitting in Ginza's Star Bar, a legend on Japan's drinking scene. Proprietor Hisashi Kishi is a former International Bar Association world champion and at 24 became the youngest winner of the national Scotch cocktail competition (see sidebar). A soft-spoken technician of a bartender, Kishi writes the recipes for the Nippon Bartenders Association's official book, sets the rules for their competitions, and teaches technique to bartenders nationwide. If Schumann is the bartending James Bond, Kishi is its Q.
On the surface it's hard to imagine two more contrasting barmen, but the pair share more than a slicked-back hairstyle. They both believe in training. A Star Bar apprenticeship can run for several years before the trainee is permitted to mix a drink for a customer.
"It depends on the person," says the bar's Tsuyoshi Yamazaki. "It took me 3 1/2 years."
Schumann began in a similar fashion.
"At the start I never approached the shaker — it was forbidden. In three years, I made 10 or 15 cocktails, not more," he says. "In Europe now, after a couple of weeks they call themselves bar consultants or mixologists. This is the wrong way. This is a very serious profession. We're working with alcohol."
Both men say bartenders should be friendly, not friends. Kishi says a barman is not supposed to be too candid with customers. In "American Bar," Schumann writes: "If a bartender respects his guests, they will respect him too. Overfamiliarity undermines this!"
Schumann and Kishi favor simplicity.
"There are many drinks, and only a few went really classic. I'm looking at what makes them stay," says the German. "Never gin and vodka together. Or vodka and rum. Or cognac and vodka. The new, ambitious bartenders — mostly there are too many ingredients in their drinks."
Though Kishi won his trophies with some inventive recipes, when he released a photobook and DVD last year with lessons on everything from how to clean a glass to how to twist a citrus peel, most of the 47 recipes were classics: daiquiri, gin fizz, Moscow mule, Manhattan et al. The Margarita was listed under "Sidecar variations."
The sidecar is one of Kishi's signatures. Where young upstarts might try to make their mark with a never-before-seen blend of booze, Kishi has studied and perfected a classic. Before shaking the drink, he froths the cognac and triple sec together to pull out the aromas and remove a little of the brandy's acrid bite. It also helps blends the ingredients before the shake. Naturally, he has opinions on the correct length, vigor and motion for shaking a sidecar (short, vigorous, figure of 8).
Both bartenders favor classic presentation, Schumann most strictly. In his book, he wonders, "What place do stuffed olives have in a martini?" In person, he expresses it a little differently: "When I was working for Harry's Bar, the Americans would say 'F-ck, Charles, please, no vegetables in my drink.' "
The two agree that a bartender's job is to understand the customer and lead them to the right drink. "We always watch the person coming in and if she wants a whiskey sour, we know she doesn't want a whiskey sour, she wants a whiskey sweet."
In his 2007 book "Star Bar e Yokoso" ("Welcome to Star Bar"), Kishi gives the example of four ladies ordering four dry martinis. "I say to myself, 'Wait a minute. Is that really what they all want?' But I cannot ask them if they are sure." It's the bartender's skill, he says, to elicit their preferences and guide them to a drink that will make them want to return.
It's mastery of classic bartending that allows the great drink-makers to play with the recipes.
"A great bartender knows just from a recipe if a drink will work," says Schumann.
As he, I and our lady friends discuss the way some nations ship their best drinks abroad (Scotland) and some only send out the stuff they don't want (Mexico), the conversation turns to pisco, the South American brandy, and how hard it is to get a decent one outside Chile or Peru. Schumann thinks for a while, then bounces up and asks a Star Bar tender for a shaker.
"Do you have pisco?"
"You mean shochu?"
And that's how Charles Schumann's most recent cocktail was invented with a little hint from Star Bar: pisco, shochu, Cointreau and lemon. It may be the first time pisco and shochu ever shared a glass, but it tasted wonderful. Call it a variation of a sidecar. Actually, since Herr Schumann neglected to name his drink, I've taken the liberty of calling it Taoyame.