Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | October 18, 2009

The Gibson, New Menus, & Japan

I was at The Gibson for the first time in a while on Friday night. It was the first time I’d been seated at the bar in a while. The back patio has been a great extension throughout the summer, but this week’s cold and rain resulted in a smaller bar. I got there shortly after 6pm and the bar itself was mostly full already.

Since The Gibson opened last November, they have had a small menu consisting of a single sheet of paper that was regularly updated. The menu has been broken down by base spirit and while the frequent changes gave the bar a nice vocabulary of their own cocktails, the menu remained small enough to be easily accessible. My understanding was that within a few months of the initial opening, the bar would produce a larger, multi-page bound menu. For the first time, they now have that menu. Sadly I don’t have pictures of it to share, but it is a hardcover, gray cloth menu consisting of four pages. The first is a bit about the bar and craft cocktails. The second page is their cocktail offerings, broken down not by base spirit but by flavor profile. Again, I don’t have the exact breakdown, but it roughly translated into light cocktails, strong savory cocktails, sweet cocktails, and a fourth category that fit somewhere in between. (Hey I’m a blogger, not a reporter!).

I was at The Gibson with Marshall from Scofflaw’s Den and while I will certainly have more to write on our time chatting, particularly getting a gift of his own Moonshine Bitters, I had a brief conversation with Derek Brown, who was also in the house on Friday night. Derek was recently on a trip to Japan and has written a number of posts for The Atlantic about his experience visiting with some of the best bartenders and bars Japan has to offer. In his latest post on Japan’s craft bartenders, Derek asserted that Japanese bartenders were better than their American colleagues, a bold statement for one of Washington, DC’s finest barmen to make.

I have to admit that after a trip to the High Five Bar, I’m swooning over the “Japanese Way” of bartending. Perhaps it leads me to my biggest faux pas of the evening. When assistant bartender Karita Kazuki of Tender Bar asks me whether I think American bartenders or Japanese bartenders are better, I begrudgingly say, “Japanese.”

The craft of bartending reached Japan at the height of America’s bartender culture, at the end of the 19th century. Some would argue that a German bartender, Louis Eppinger, who tended bar in San Francisco and was a contemporary of the great William “Cocktail Bill” Boothby, helped to bring the craft to the island when he managed the Grand Hotel in Yokohama. What was forcefully abandoned here by prohibition was gleefully embraced in Japan, where it has overtones of the tea ceremony and sushi counters. They have copied classic bartending culture perfectly while adding their own cultural touches.

Regardless of my fascination, I do retract my statement. The U.S. has some of the best bartenders in the world, but the point is taken–the world has learned our craft and taken lessons to heart that some American bartenders have long forgotten. Fortunately, it’s not a competition, and we can learn from each other. If you make it to Tokyo, drop by Tender Bar and enjoy the education of bartending master Kazuo Ueda by the glass.

I spoke to Derek on Friday about his writing on the subject and the conversation was quite interesting. He again marveled at the professionalism and precision of the bartenders he visited with. I had noticed that in his posts on Japanese bars, he was always drinking classic cocktails. He said that there weren’t many unique cocktails to each bar, something which I think is a pretty marked contrast to their counterparts in the US. For better or worse, every top cocktail bar I’ve ever been to has a menu that is, generally speaking, 75-95% original recipes. Sure, many drinks are close relatives to classic recipes, but for the most part, craft cocktail bars in the US develop their own brand and showcase the creativity and ingenuity of their lead bartenders. On the one hand this means a visit to a high end cocktail bar in the US will invariably expose even the savviest connoisseurs to new combinations for them to enjoy. On the other hand, it means bartenders spend less time perfecting their creation of recipes that have already stood the test of time. And as I’m often to remark, the cocktails that have been around for 50-200 years are often times the best ones, the ones that are already so well crafted that the only areas of improvement available are the quality of ingredients and the precision of techniques used in making them.

I haven’t ever been to Japan and obviously I haven’t been to a Japanese cocktail bar. But from what I’ve seen in videos of Japanese bartenders giving seminars to Western audiences and from reporters of people whose opinions I trust like Derek, I think there is a real range in speciality between the US and Japan. Perhaps if Japan’s bartenders can so thoroughly impress one of our masters like Derek, it means American bartenders should rethink how they craft their menus. I don’t want to lose the originality we have, but at the same time, I am excited at the thought of seeing the high degrees of perfection attained at bars like Death & Company or Bourbon & Branch rise even higher.

But beyond that, in terms of how you make craft cocktails amenable to a wider audience, maybe less unique recipes per bar makes sense too? Maybe showing people things they may have heard of but never properly made is more likely to draw them into cocktail enthusiasm than showing them the virtues of a heretofore unheard of combination of pear-infused rye, bitters, and amaro?

Derek is certainly right that it isn’t a competition between the US and Japan. Hopefully both bar tending cultures will continue to take the best from each other to improve their product, their customer service, and the quality of cocktails they serve.

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