Hidetsugu Ueno San
"To be honest with you, I don't exactly know what Japanese bartending is."
If Hidetsugu Ueno, one of Japan's most famous bartenders, expert in the three- and four-point hard shake and famed carver of ice diamonds, doesn't know, what chance do the rest of us have?
Truth is, he doesn't exactly embody the regimented, precise, ultra-efficient and (dare we say it?) non-smiling character that we in the West have come to associate with the Japanese bartender. Watch him at the stick, suited and with that Elvis 'do fixed in place, and sure, he's deliberate and practised, but you'll notice he's also completely relaxed, joking around, working the room, always laughing. He's also fallible: first he drops the ice he's just about to carve - whoops! Then he makes a cocktail nobody ordered, whoops again.
Newsflash: he's normal, human. OK, we weren't at his bar in Tokyo when we watched him, rather we were sat at a replica of Bar High Five that Suntory had created at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans to showcase his talents, so maybe he wasn't quite as exacting as he might be. But the point that he seems keen to make is that Japanese bartenders have been unfairly pigeon-holed as a workforce of frowning, earnest types that you shouldn't talk to while they are crafting your cocktail.
Certainly, these sorts of bartenders exist - indeed if you are going to find them anywhere it's Ginza - and their attention to detail, their level of alertness is certainly something the rest of the industry could learn from. But it is just a small part of the whole bartending business. In the same way that in China, Chinese food is, well, just called food, Japanese bartending to Ueno San is just, well, bartending.
Serious face, no talking
"Some Japanese bartenders make a very serious face and it's like you are not supposed to talk to them," he says, "but I like to talk. Precision techniques like hard shaking or ice carving, our postures, are not actually the popular techniques. They are small details, just part of our way of treating guests."
And just to make the point even more, when we ask him where he's looking to improve his own talents, his answer puts him even further from any preconceptions you might have of Japanese bartending being a relentless quest to refine classic cocktail-making techniques. "I really, really want to learn molecular mixology and flair bartending," he says. Really, we say? "Yes, I don't need to learn to throw five bottles - just a bit of working flair. To entertain customers, surprise them. If I can't do it I can't satisfy my guests.
"When people ask me what I think of these sorts of things, they expect me to say No, No, No, but I really want to learn them." He grins. We grin back. He's keeping it real.
That said, Ueno San fully understands why high-end Japanese bar culture has developed in the way it has. It's easy to see how this bartending style has developed and borrowed from traditional elements of Japanese culture. This is, after all, the land of the tea ceremony, the place where flower arranging is not just a hobby but a strict discipline, where there's value in tradition and ritual.
"Japan is quite a small country, with its own culture. The Japanese are not good at inventing stuff but are good at making them in their own way and style - such as the car industry, cell phones and even bar culture. The relationship among bartenders is more master and pupil than colleagues, it's very strict and strong. It's more artisan-type work than other jobs - Japanese bartenders are pretty conscious of being watched by the people in front of them, so they show themselves as tidy, elegant and gentle, which is the position of society in Japan."
Smoke rising from my head
He says the profession has only recently become elevated to a position of respect and a career worth having. "A bartending job in Japan is not an ideal job. It's been seen as one of the lowest jobs in Japanese society. No one (including me) ever wanted to become a bartender - they become one because they couldn't become anything else, generally speaking. Bartenders have been struggling to deal with this and to try to make it better for the last hundred years and it's only, I could say, not more than 20 years that bartenders and bars have been published in magazines and that people have started to want to become a bartender."
His brand of east meets west bartending is now on show nightly at his fourth floor bar in central Tokyo. And it is definitely him behind the bar, making drinks - not much room for anyone else, after all. "As long as I'm in the country, I'm at the bar. People who get tired or stressed or something bad has happened, they come to my bar, but even if they have had a tragedy I try to be very normal to talk to. When they leave my bar, then they are very happy. I feel like they draw power from me and that makes me tired. They take my power!"
Not that he lets it show. It's a philosophy he learned from his own former master and mentor in Star Bar Ginza, Mr Hisashi Kishi. "He's a former IBA world cocktail champion but when he makes a drink he doesn't care about that - it's all about the drink. His customers might be feeling they are having a drink made by the world champion, but he's really relaxed. He laughs it off. I like that kind of personality. I learned techniques and philosophy from him, the way you should treat guests, the small details, keeping alert in the bar. And so I really love to focus on the drinks. I put all my effort into the drink. I think very much: it's like smoke is coming from my head! But I don't like to show my guests, so I act like it's a piece of cake to make a drink. I think it's cool not to show how much I put effort into the drink."
His answer reveals how the relaxed presentational technique that he has perfected actually hides years of carefully honed precision and effort. And that's something at odds with a lot of western bartenders, who are increasingly trying to emulate the look of Japanese bartending techniques and culture without fully understanding what they are doing. This was in evidence during the recent Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition final in New Delhi, where Ueno San was a 'guru' or judge (and where we interviewed him for this article).
"I saw a lot of bartenders using three-piece (cobbler) shakers and I could see some of them had never used them before. Bartenders shouldn't choose tools just for the way they look or for style. You should know how to use the tools. It wasn't only the reason why a Japanese bartender (Manabu Ohtake from Tokyo) won the competition but he competed with his own style. The others tried to compete with Japanese style - they didn't compete with their own style and I thought that was the wrong decision. One thing I have always been amazed by Western bartenders is the way they use Boston shakers but unfortunately, I couldn't see much this year.
"Western bartenders should go back to their own style or learn more how to use Japanese tools and movement [properly]."
Ouch. That's quite a put down, but it's a nice segue to the fashion of hard shaking cocktails, or at least to try and look like you are. Just look around at any bar, and the number of bartenders you see attempting to replicate a hard shake is astounding. In fact, most are simply shaking horizontally. They might cunningly vary the height of the shaker during the shake, but it's definitely not a three- or four-point execution that truly manipulates the passage of the ice within the shaker.
"Trust me, it's very few bartenders who hard shake in the right way, for the right drinks and for a clear reason. And it's not about shaking right and left, either. I use several different type of shake in daily work and it's not the only way of shaking. I use a different type of shaker in each shake."
So how should you hard shake? And why bother? The purpose of the hard shake is to insert more air into the drink than would otherwise happen with conventional shaking, controlling the passage of the ice as it travels around inside the shaker, thereby increasing mouthfeel and texture of the drink.
Old School Cool
"You need to put a large amount of (good) ice per drink for a hard shake. It has to be very hard and cold cubed ice, factory made ideally. This means the liquid turns much colder than a regular shake. When I measure my hard-shaken drinks, they are always about -6C to -8C - like an iceberg at the Pole.
"There is a gift for hard-shaken drinks, which is very tiny tipped [chipped] ice. I always try to roll the ice around in the shaker to get tiny tipped ice. Most Western bartenders double-strain to take them out because it makes the liquid watery, but when you sip hard-shaken drinks, those ice [chips] melt right away in your mouth and people in Japan feel it's comfortable. But they have to be very tiny otherwise it's just a foreign body.
"It might sound strange but you cannot shake hard when you do a hard shake. You have to loosen and relax your body."
Despite his ability to closely critique others' techniques and styles, Ueno San is well aware of his own limitations. "I don't think I'm the best at shaking or stirring," he says, "and I'm really bad at remembering classic drinks. I never remember recipes so I always look at books."
Hang on, wasn't he the guru for the Classic, Vintage and Twist cocktail round at World Class? Oh well.
"And I'm really bad at remembering names and faces. Sometimes really bad. Though I can remember the cigarette they smoked." Useful! Sorta. What else? He doesn't drink much, doesn't go out much, craves sleep like the rest of us.
Later on during Tales of the Cocktail, we film Ueno San making one of his trademark ice diamonds. We like to imagine he brought it with him all the way from Japan, but it was supplied here in New Orleans. Using a large cleaver, he scores the block then gently taps the top of the cleaver with a wooden mallet. It goes clean through and he's left with a crystal clear block of ice about the size of a fist.
He takes out a small knife, maybe three inches long. "This is Japanese steel, and I sharpen it every day. It used to be much longer." He holds his hand out about six inches away from the tip to illustrate. Yesterday, he cut himself doing this: cue jokes about 'blood diamonds' and more laughing from Ueno San, head thrown back in delight.
As he deftly whittles the smaller block in his hand, it quickly takes on the form of an enormous diamond. After a minute or so, he's done and pops it into a rocks glass, and the small crowd which has formed, each with a camera phone held up in front of their faces. It might have only taken a few seconds but it's a reflection of many, many years spent getting to know his tools and truly understanding his environment. He takes a small bow as the audience applauds.
What does the 43-year-old want from the future, apart from perfecting his flair/Bryan Brown impression?
"I'm not the kind of person who wants to become a bar owner with 5, 6 or 10 bars. I'll be very happy to be behind the bar at 60 or 70 but in the short term I would like to make my bar bigger. It would be nice to have an ice machine. At the moment there's no room. I have a freezer but I don't have an ice machine.
"And a lot of people like to come to my place to learn from me, but my bar is too small. It would be nice to hold classes in the afternoon before I open for customers and I would like to make the opportunity for international bar residencies, someone from China, the US, Greece perhaps. I'd have to move though."
As much as Ueno San protests that he doesn't know what Japanese bartending is, there is something distinct about it, and he happens to embody its ethos very well indeed. His exposure to international bartending has helped him smooth the rigid edges of the eastern bartending techniques he was schooled in, but he's not strayed too far from it either.
"As I keep saying, Japanese bartenders just keep working the same style - though it might look new for young Western bartenders. I don't think Japanese style makes better drinks than other styles but it's also not just theatre. To work fluently and gently is to directly reflect and influence the taste. We are about staying old school classic style but being cool at the same time."
Ueno San, there's none cooler than you.