For most of us in the industry there lies a certain mysterious air around Japan, a secretive knowledge of history that is far deeper than pre-prohibition cocktails or the preferred drink of English Kings. It is not an understanding of fact or instance but of earthly pursuits— of precision and order.
Japanese bartending is unique in the sense that it extends beyond the way a drink tastes, and though the finest and most considered ingredients are often used, drinking in Japan is not spawned from a cocktail list, but rather a cocktail experience.
For those working in Japan a “classic” is more than a recipe, it is instead something of noble tradition—and making these classics become an art well before the final pour. Like seasoned chefs or dojo masters, many aspiring high-level Japanese bartenders have been known to train for years before ever stepping foot behind a bar during service. However once there, they craft cocktails with restrained perfection, carve ice with seeming ease, and embody the ethics of hospitality to the very core.
Western visitors have commented that when served in the finer bars of Tokyo, the cocktail was placed in front of them with the same level of care as when a jeweller places his most expensive diamond on a mat for viewing. The result is a drink so beautiful, so perfect and so steeped in ritual that a customer is almost afraid to breathe in its presence for fear of ruining the illusion. By the time he or she is ready to sip they have formed such connection to the experience that the night will likely never be forgotten.
Of course there is a downside to such craft, especially when transferred out of the small private dining clubs of Tokyo – many which only sit 10 to 12 patrons. In a less ridged market, where even a small bar can mean upwards of 100 guests at any given time, the ability to meet volume and still maintain such severe and rigorous talent is obviously taxed.
So what can you take away from Japanese bar culture? What is possible (or moreover feasible) to duplicate in your bar?
The answer, at any level, is refinement.
If you are a large bar, refine the ritual of how you value customers, do you welcome them? Do you listen to them? Are your glasses clean? While you may not have the time or capacity to provide a full experience, refining the points of hospitality that are often ignored – like greeting, is a step at harnessing the respect and professionalism Japanese bartenders communicate to their guests.
If you are a mid-tier bar, refine you tools. Replace worn glassware, teach a proper hard shake (the technique was invented in Japan), and invest in stirring or straining equipment that provide a level of imperial dignity to the acts. Equipment that is streamlined and easy to use across stations allow for more elegant applications of technique, even in higher volume situations. Most importantly once you have the proper tools to facilitate heighten technique (in little time) ensure they are respected.
If you are a craft bar, refine your presentation. Allow guests to connect with their drinks as closely as your bartenders who create them. Allow them to watch as the whisk(e)y is gently poured over the rounded ice, and then swirled to chill, using an elegant, extra-long bar spoon with a trident on one end that is so revered in Japan. Develop a higher level of theatre and consistency that will translate in their eyes into intrigue, remembered experience, and loyalty. Take notice of BarShido, our notion of the study, repetition and respect attained from a long and practiced pursuit.
For those who possess the right environment and a level of commitment, making the benefits of Japanese bar culture more readily utilised is not a difficult feat. There are many additional techniques that can be easily learned by top level professionals. Have a look at the following styles explored by industry experts who have made a point to see the ritual culture of presentation travel well across international markets.