Posted by: Matt Hamlin | September 20, 2012

Lessons from Hidetsugu Ueno

Hidetsugu Ueno, world renowned bartender and owner of Bar High Five in Ginza, Tokyo, Japan, gave an interview to Nick Koumbarakis, proprietor of The Alchemist Says…. It’s a great read on the philosophies of one of the kindest, most thoughtful bar men I’ve come across in the world. When I was in Japan a couple of years ago, I went to Bar High Five and had a fantastic experience. While there I mentioned that I hoped to buy some Japanese bar ware (which is high quality and very expensive in the US), as well as some bottles of Japanese whisky which aren’t imported to the US. First Ueno-san set up an impromptu tasting of a range of high end whiskies, then recommended me to a nearby liquor store which would have them available at better prices than big stores or duty free. Then, much to my delight, Ueno-san said that he was planning on going shopping for bar ware the next day and offered to take me around to the best stores to make my purchases. I happily accepted his generous offer and was able to make some great purchase in a restaurant supply stores that I would have had a hard time navigating otherwise. Oh and in addition to being a complete mensch (as we say in Yiddish), he’s a world-class bartender.

While much of the interview is about his philosophies for bartending and life, Ueno-san’s observation of what makes Japanese cocktail culture unique is really interesting to me. From the Koumbarakis interview:

In Japan we focus entirely on the classics, the vintage way of bartending and not on current trends. There are some trends and techniques that I personally like; People are starting to make their own bitters and vermouths. In saying this, I do believe bartenders should be good at using available products, not making products. There are plenty of products that one can play with. Speakeasy style of bars, vintage books, Mescal in the United States and Rye Whisky in Europe…they are all just trends personally. You can imagine why the Japanese style of bartending got increasingly popular overnight? We are the ones who are constantly surprising. The Japanese style of bartending has not changed in the past 100 years. The rest of world is always looking for something new, something different. We are always focusing on the classics and interpreting those classics in our own way, meticulously and effortlessly.

In my experience, the focus on classic cocktails and perfecting techniques ahead of creating ones’ own ingredients for ones’ original recipes leads to excellence in Japanese bartending. I can relate to the idea that the classics are what are most likely to survive and therefore are the best things to be drinking. Many drinks which have survived from fifty to two hundred years survived because they’re great drinks. Continually trying to make them with greater care and perfection will lead to ever more enjoyable cocktails. While there are literally thousands of contemporary creations by craft bartenders around the globe which are balanced, pleasant, and creative, how many will be around and widely consumed in 100 years? If it’s more than a dozen or two, I’d be surprised. Thus there’s value in what is classic and the Japanese cocktail world seems to place more importance on this than cocktail cultures elsewhere in the world.

I can also relate to the idea that we should use the ingredients which are available not only to us as bartenders, but to the general public. While I appreciate and celebrate the creativity of craft bartenders who create their own ingredients as a vehicle to make the epicurean art they wish to make, it makes it hard for home consumers or even their peers elsewhere in the bar world to follow along. The ability to offer a drink that simply cannot be had elsewhere in the world is surely a good marketing move, but it creates a wall between the bartender and those who would want to enjoy her cocktail outside the confines of her bar.

One of the things that makes bartending incredible is that it is closer to baking than savory cooking. Given a recipe and knowledge of proper techniques, any cocktail can be replicated, providing the ingredients are available. This is challenged when bartenders use products which aren’t available on the market and thus serves as a barrier to the spread of good cocktails.

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon. Part of where I stand is based on a recognition over time that while I appreciate the original cocktails of many bartenders and bars, at the end of the day, there are very few which I find truly memorable. I find much greater joy in a perfectly made Martini or Daiquiri than a creative original creation, as the novelty of the new drink wears off with each sip, while the perfect of a classic can last centuries. As much as I appreciate the creativity of bartenders like Phil Ward or Gina Chersevani, at the end of the day I’d rather see American bartenders focus on perfecting classics than buying lotto tickets that their next original creation might stand the tests of time to become a classic itself.

This isn’t about the bartenders, though. It’s much more about the cocktail consuming public. Somewhere along the lines we consumers developed an expectation that every cocktail bar we go into have 8-20 original cocktails. If consumers instead demanded more and better classics, this could change. Though I have no clue when it will be, I would someday like to open a bar and serve only the finest classic cocktails. Until then, I’ll go around, try a couple new drinks when I visit a bar then switch to classics that I know I’ll truly enjoy.

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Responses

  1. Although I love creativity and think that I have tasted some rather top notch cocktails at some great bars, I do always seem to order my first drink from the list of “house cocktails” and then I go back to ordering the so-called classics. There is a timeless elegance to them, and I would love to see more effort go into making a great Manhattan or a perfectly elegant Martini.

    At the same time, what are the classics? Certain drinks hover on the border between “Classic” and the other. The Corpse Reviver #2 and the Last Word for example. Two of my favorite drinks, and two that when I encounter a good bar with a stunning selection of good quality spirits that I like to order. But often times [surprisingly, so], I’m left explaining what goes into them. I don’t like to play “stump the bartender,” but sometimes I’m left wondering “is the Clover Club actually a classic….or is it not?:

    Thoughtful post though, and I’d love to visit your “classic-cocktails perfected” bar.

  2. While I enjoy a perfectly executed classic, I enjoy the experimentation that we so often see behind the bar more. This gives me a window into the bartenders mind. In a sense everyone can replicate a classic given the right recipe. The point of going to bar at least for me is to be able see bartenders put flavors and exotic ingredients together. It promotes growth and innovation. I prefer to try the house cocktails and rifts off classics but rarely the original classic. I wanna be wowed by their skill and understanding of ingredients not their ability to read a recipe and replace one rye whiskey for another and change the bitters.

    There may only be 12 cocktails from this era that the world remembers from now but so what. Its like classic movies from the golden era of film. There are ones that garnished critical fame but there are many worthy gems to be discovered. The same will be true of cocktails. There will 12 cocktails that we remember from this era but many more worthy ones that will be rediscovered and re-imagined.

  3. [...] Yes. A thousand times, yes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, just because you can make it doesn’t make it a good [...]


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