People

The way of the cocktail

Liza Weisstuch meets the Japanese master of the bartending world
By Liza Weisstuch
This is a travel story that could be mistaken for being not a travel story. This is what happens when a destination – in this case, a person, a pillar of the Eastern bartending world – comes to you instead of you having to trek halfway around the planet to visit him. Well, let’s make one thing clear: Kazuo Uyeda, who’s 66 and agile, did not make his first public appearance in New York for me alone. Uyeda, who’s been bartending in Japan for 45 years, won countless cocktail competitions, invented a cocktail-making technique that’s mimicked by many, understood by few, and authored cocktail books, still works six nights a week behind the stick at Tender, his bar in Ginza, Tokyo. In May, he visited Manhattan to lead a two-day seminar, Japanese Bartending Technique.

Nearly 150 of the country’s leading bartenders were in attendance. They flew in from cities as far flung as Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Seattle. The attentive group of drink-makers sat rapt for two six hour sessions, listening to Uyeda through translators who provided a running English explanation piped in on United Nations-style headsets.

While, like Bill Murray in the much lauded movie in which his despairing character famously sipped Japanese whiskey, some tips of wisdom were likely lost in translation. Perhaps the real-time translators oversimplified, but to just read a transcript, you would find a spiel that seems like it was delivered by the new age motivational speaker of bartending. To wit: “You have to focus on how to make cocktails better than other people;” “A relationship with a customer is important in the taste of cocktail. A person drinking trusts bartender and strongly believes anything coming from him will taste good;” “What we lose today cannot get back. Effort is the most important;” “You need to think about how to make it look easy while it’s hard, too.” “Everyone copies the form of my shake, but form only comes from the heart.”

But after two days of observing a master communicate a lifetime of intense craft in person, the crowd of foreigners went back to their bars with new ways to think about imbibing.

Held at the Hiro Ballroom in Chelsea, a sprawling space awash in cheeky Japanese décor, the event was co-sponsored by Yamazaki, and several expressions of it flowed freely at the after-party. It was conceptualised and carried out by Greg Boehm, owner of Mud Puddle Books, through which he publishes historically accurate replicas of antique, good-as-extinct cocktail books from his own mind-blowing collection, which he started building years before eBay became the go-to resource for such oddities. Uyeda’s most popular book, Cocktail Technique, which came out in Japan around the turn of the millennium, was just translated into English and published by Mud Puddle.

Boehm also owns and oversees Cocktail Kingdom (www.cocktailkingdom.com), an online retail site and off-shoot of the publishing company. Through it, he sources and sells a vast array of bitters and international barware, especially super-sleek, precision engineered Japanese tools, from seemingly aerodynamic shakers and jiggers to heavy-bottomed crystal mixing glasses to ice picks. Ubiquitous though those tools may be throughout Japan, they’re still relative novelties in America and the United Kingdom, not to mention the rest of the world.

What’s found even less commonly in the US and UK are the thoughtful, expertly perfected and, now, time-tested drink-making techniques that Uyeda has been practicing and, on a small scale, teaching as he developed them over the past decades. Those methods put heavy emphasis on the process and an untouchable degree of customer service and are best described in abstract explanations that tend to be described in abstract, elusive sound bites when you ask Uyeda directly about his methods. To hear Uyeda tell it, one is inclined to deduce that it’s a bit like yoga or martial arts in the sense that the ultimate goal, cocktails “with deliciousness” (a term he uses frequently) can only be achieved under his tutelage and explanation. Learning it requires more than knowledge of proper, precise physical movements and an understanding of some basic laws of physics. It’s about immersing oneself in an unwavering determination to please customers and a firm commitment, as Uyeda puts it, to construct a “delicious cocktail” every time one unscrews a liquor bottle.

Perhaps it is because of this, reasons alone won’t be satisfactory in Uyeda’s mind, that they must be taken as a whole and, moreover, understood as individual parts that make a whole, his practices cannot be accomplished by observational learning. Yet there is an aspect to the comprehensive style that Uyeda embodies that can, at times, seem like a foreign riddle, even when it is taught by Uyeda himself to a room of skilled bartenders. In a very real sense, appreciation for this method is something whisky drinkers can appreciate most of all. After all, once the technicalities are mastered by a distiller or blender, there is an aspect –a mystique, if you will – around whisky-making that tends to default to inadequate language. If the steps of the process don’t align in just the right way, it just won’t work.

Uyeda’s approach is defined by nine tenets one must be mindful of before even getting to the physical activity of making a drink. They borrow from Japanese traditions and lifestyles, from Sumo to general attitude toward perfecting craftsmanship to warfare. Collectively, they add up to The Way of the Cocktail. Bearing in mind each of these merely hints at different concepts, each of which warrants contemplation and practice, like yoga poses in order for each to be truly useful, I will reveal them herein.

First and foremost is The Japanese Mindset, “meticulous, delicate, mastering the way”. In what he explained as being in the tradition of World War II comes an understanding that his technique is a Japanese twist on a Western import. Particularly, in the East the emphasis is ‘process, not product.’ The third principal, ‘technique is a self-expression’, posits that self-improvement should be a main drive in cocktail making and “technique is meaningless without heart.”

From there comes the belief in ‘creating anticipation’ and the understanding that “‘delicious’ is more than just taste.” This is where hospitality is key, where the relationship with the guest is vital, since a guest’s judgment of a bartender’s attitude is almost as integral to their experience as a bartender having a good sense of an individual’s flavour preferences. That feeds into principal five: ‘the guest is the final Judge’, which is Uyeda’s diplomatic way of saying “Don’t get overconfident.”

The Sumo’s motto comes next: ‘Heart, Technique, Body.’

Since one’s technique must be a manifestation of the body and soul, it’s critical to have ultimate physical health for proper expression. The seventh tenet is best described as a pause for reflection amid the torrent of instruction: ‘develop your ability to concentrate’. In keeping with a quintessential eastern sensibility, this is Uyeda’s way communicating that a bartender should examine his motives and “know the joy of giving joy,” Uyada asserts matter-of-factly.

The eighth principal is honing the one’s intuitive ability to ‘read palates and master classic recipes’, since one should only create new recipes based on standards. The final teaching is to ‘express your spirit’, which, in its English translation, has several layers of meaning as a concluding nugget of wisdom.

With the mindfulness covered, the second day he proceeded to examine different physical steps of the drink-making process, from the precise movements of opening a liquor bottle with grace to washing the ice to the angle – and rhythm and tempo – of the shaker tin when a drink is shaken. Interestingly – and contrary to what’s being practiced in the most respected craft cocktail bars in America, Europe and the UK – Uyeda does not use a jigger to measure his pours when mixing a drink. The jigger, which he refers to as a “measuring cup,” is only used for one thing at his bar.

“Pour it slowly, so you show it to the guest,” he says as he demonstrates.

You might have never imagined you could think so much about any individual step, but watching Uyeda pour spirits with nearly choreographed finesse, chisel ice balls, stir a drink with attention to the sound of the ice, demonstrate his signature “hard shake” and empty the contents of a shaker to fill a glass just right every single time, it somehow became apparent that his formula – multifaceted in its philosophy and committed in its perpetual attention to improvement – is akin to the ritualistic and all-encompassing practice of sumo.

I had a chance to meet with him one-on-one the day before the seminar. He spoke to me through a translator in a Midtown apartment scattered with minimalistic instillation artwork and more colourful sculptures and paintings that fittingly blended a Japanimation sensibility with sophisticated Art Basel chic.

Uyeda, impeccably dressed in a Saville Row tailored suit, tells me that he went to college for three years to study economics but he dropped out. Economics wasn’t for him, he says with a laugh, (though he admitted that it’s come in handy since he opened Tender in 1997).

Before Tender, he started developing his craft in 1966 when he took a bartending job at Tokyo Kaikan, a banquet hall-style facility. Then he worked at the bar in the Shiseido Parlor, owned by the famed cosmetics company of the same name. He was quick to point out that Japan was introduced to cocktails in the 1960s when the drinks we now consider classics—like sidecars, Manhattans and daiquiris – were in vogue. Unlike the US or UK, in Japan they never forgot those in favour of the madcap vodka-driven trends of the 1980s and 1990s. While Uyeda certainly has and does make his share of blue drinks, he’s always accompanied that with a heavy rotation of the stalwarts.

“I set out on a mission to make cocktails better each time,” he says through the translator, explaining the underpinnings of what he came to teach.

“In Japan, we’ve been doing classics for 50 years. You forgot it in America, but the Japanese continued to do old-time drinks. That’s why they’re delicious.”

Given his devoted attention to colour and sound in his drink-making methods, I was curious if those come from any artistic pursuits in his past. When pressed about where his inspiration comes from, he claims that he never had a serious interest or hobby. He played trumpet and guitar a bit, “for fun,” he notes, as he makes motions of casual strumming and hummed along a rock and roll-like melody. He’s travelled to Scotland, Cognac, China and Italy, but mostly for competitions.

He has, he says, simply heeded an instinct to make delicious drinks, which certainly explains some of the whimsy that passes for wisdom. And thus, a cult legend was born.

“When I learned about his book, I started asking around about him in Japan, and everyone thought,” says Boehm, the publisher and workshop organiser. “Then I went to Japan and found out just how incredibly influential he’d been.”

One would like to imagine that his recent trip to Manhattan to teach America’s leading bartenders The Way of the Cocktail and then make drinks for them all, employing his precise technique amid the pulsating frenzy of an after-party – complete with DJ – he’ll have a trip that will stand out in his memory years down the line.