How Japanese Bartenders Quietly Changed American Bartending

Courtesy of Speak Low
Courtesy of Speak Low

No one paid attention when Angel’s Share opened in New York’s East Village in 1993. No one noticed when Shinichi Ikeda got behind the bar in 1996 and started mixing true Japanese-style classic cocktails. But Ikeda did notice Sasha Petraske a few years later, probably because Petraske’s eyes were glued to the bartenders in their pristine white coats making cocktails like no one else in the city. Petraske was inspired to open Milk & Honey in 2000, which became, in an indirect way, a conduit through which classic Japanese bartending struck a cocktail fire, a flame that was stoked by other bartenders who were meanwhile recovering drinks and spirits from old books across New York City, in San Francisco and in London. The flames spread during the aughts, and Angel’s Share eventually received the attention it deserved as a beacon of cocktail mastery.

Petraske’s visits to Angel’s Share gave him real life experience beyond the vintage cocktail books that his peers were furiously studying at the time. “Sasha used to come to Angel’s Share all the time as a customer,” Ikeda recalls. “We became friends. He loved to watch whatever I was doing. The equipment was straight from Japan, so totally different [from what he had seen] at the time. [But] Sasha was very fast to pick up what I used to do.” When Petraske told Ikeda he was considering opening a bar in the style of Angel’s Share, Ikeda encouraged him unabashedly. “I told him, ‘Go do it. I want to drink there.’”

Angel’s Share would eventually begin to attract its own attention in 2003, and more “Japanese style” bars would follow in New York, taking different elements from the broader Japanese culture and applying them to the American market. After leaving Angel’s Share in 2007, Ikeda opened B Flat, a subterranean jazz cocktail lounge in Tribeca, where he employs multiple Angel’s Share alumni. In 2015, Kenta Goto, Petraske’s fellow barfly at Angel’s Share and a Pegu Club alum, opened Bar Goto on the Lower East Side. The next year, another Angel’s Share vet, Shigefumi Kabashima, opened ROKC (ramen, oysters, kitchen, and cocktails) in Hamilton Heights.

But the impact of Angel’s Share extends well beyond its direct family tree, though, and can be seen in the countless speakeasies and classic cocktail bars that have popped up over the last 10 to 15 years.

The evidence of Japanese influence is both visible and invisible. Often now you’ll notice backbars stocked with Japanese whisky, a relative mystery to Americans before Angel’s Share began serving it. Ikeda recalls introducing drinkers to Japanese whisky just as single malts began to grow in popularity during the late ‘90s, when the only brand imported into the U.S. was Hibiki (even before Yamazaki became available and long before Suntory would buy the Beam distillery and distribute Japanese whisky to markets across America).

Other bottles bear the influence of Japanese trends less overtly. In the last few years, a trend of cocktails made with vintage spirits has emerged in the States at bars like Canon in Seattle. But Takeshi Matsuzawa, head bartender at Bar Benfiddich and Bar B&F in Tokyo, says Japanese bartenders have long used ingredients like white curaçao from the 1960s and Gordon’s gin from the 1950s to enhance old standard cocktails.

You may also see Americans shaking and stirring with Japanese bar tools. “That’s the main thing the West has borrowed from Japan: Japanese bitters dashers, Japanese teardrop spoons, Japanese Hawthorne strainers, Japanese mixing glasses,” Frank Cisneros (of New York’s Bushwick Country Club, Prime Meats and Dram), an American who has tended bar in both countries, explains. This stream of Japanese barware began to trickle into America in the late aughts. When he was working at Prime Meats in 2008, Cisneros would race with his peers from bars around the city—mostly Thomas Waugh, Damon Boelte and Brad Farran—to snap up anything that Cocktail Kingdom imported.

Still, while countless bars now fill their shelves with Japanese bottles and arm their bartenders with Japanese tools, there has always been a gap between the implements of Japanese bartending and the techniques to go along with them. Cisneros admits the desire for Japanese barware has been driven more by looks than utility. “We’d buy all these bar tools but none of us knew anything at all about how to use them. We just knew they were very pretty,” he says. “You can walk into a bar in Berlin or New York or Paris or L.A., and you see Japanese bitters dashers on the bar. However, nobody uses them correctly, myself included.”

Here lies the greatest challenge in understanding Japan’s influence on America. On the surface, American and Japanese bartending styles are extremely different, and Americans have fallen under the misconception that they can’t or shouldn’t bother learning Japanese technique. But beyond the stereotypes and misconceptions, there is a deeper philosophical consensus that has helped create modern American bartending as we know it.

First, some background. If people have any notions at all about Japanese bartending, they likely involve its rigid and uncompromising style. Early Japanese bartenders meticulously gathered techniques and recipes from the American cocktail authorities of Jerry Thomas’ generation in the 19th century, and subsequent generations of Japanese bartenders have stayed faithful to those original guidelines ever since. The style has come to be known as Ginza style, named for the district in Tokyo that would come to dominate the cocktail scene in Japan.

“When you go to a bar in Ginza, it’s literally just a mirror of what Western bartending was in the 1800s,” says Cisneros. “They still wear white coats. They use the same old … three piece cobbler shaker, because that was what was in fashion at the time [of the Meiji Restoration].”

In terms of specifics (perhaps best represented by Kenji Tsubokura’s winning performance at the Japan Bartender’s Association’s annual cocktail contest), Cisneros explains that hallmarks of Ginza include: near silence, attention to detail, and utter respect for the customer. He recalls that his senpai (or mentor) at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo would test the noise created by bartenders’ mixing with a decibel meter. If a server dropped something, the entire staff would announce in the old, formal Japanese dialect Keigo, “shitsurei itashimashita,” or “We’re sorry to have caused you all an intrusion.” And while Americans strived to mix four drinks at once, Cisneros was chastised by his senpai for double shaking. “In Japan, you would never think to stir more than one drink at a time,” he explains. “It’s considered very rude … to divide your attention between multiple guests.”

These trademarks of Ginza style are one aspect of Japanese cocktail culture that hasn’t taken hold in the United States and perhaps never will. Even Ikeda, who had trained for six years in Ginza, broke that tradition when he arrived at Angel’s Share. He recalls thinking, “I’m in New York. [Here,] drinks and alcohol make everybody happy. You’re drinking to have a great time. [Japanese] style was not going to fit.”

It’s hard to imagine American bartenders monitoring decibel meters while serving a happy hour crowd that is four rows deep. The most recognizable Japanese technique, the hard shake developed by Kazuo Uyeda of Tokyo’s Tender Bar, has been a point of particular controversy in the bar world. After the Slovakian born cocktail luminary Stanislav Vadrna trained with Uyeda and spread awareness of the Japanese style as a global ambassador, a panel of Western cocktail authorities convened at Tales of the Cocktail in 2009 to scientifically study the differences between American shaking styles and the hard shake. In a write-up for The New York Times, Toby Cecchini of Brooklyn’s The Long Island Bar described how Dave Arnold, Alex Day of Death & Co., and Eben Klemm of the B.R. Guest Hospitality group used electronic thermocouples to disprove the superiority of the hard shake to achieve optimal dilution and chill rates. (The panel’s rejection of the hard shake notwithstanding, some Americans have taken up the hard shake mantle, like Eben Freeman of AvroKO Hospitality Group, who learned the technique from Vadrna).

But to focus on rigid rules and specific techniques is to miss the key characteristic of Japanese style and arguably the greatest gift Japan has ever given the American bartending world: hospitality. Matsuzawa calls omotenashi, the Japanese concept of hospitality, the most important aspect of Japanese bartending. Omotenashi, which is rooted in Japanese tea ceremonies, requires that servers not only respond to guests’ needs after those needs are voiced, but to preempt the request. It can be distilled into the catchphrase ichi-go, ichi-e, which translates to “one time, one meeting.” The customer’s entire experience at a bar rests on a single interaction, so Japanese bartenders throw everything they’ve got into perfecting that one moment.

Understanding Ginza style in this context, it’s easy to see how the strict system would foster the principles of omotenashi. “Japanese bartending is not all about technique and style. It’s a philosophy. You need to know why we do this or that,” says Shingo Gokan, who headed the bar program at Angel’s Share from 2007 to 2016. “American-style hospitality is about entertainment—let people enjoy themselves and have fun. [It’s about] speed work [and] interesting combinations in drinks. Japanese style is not about entertainment. It’s about making people comfortable. It’s quiet, clean, very precise, [focused on] small details.”

Cisneros has noticed a rising trend of American bars that explicitly concentrate on hospitality as a way to differentiate themselves in a market bloated with expert bartenders. He argues hospitality is a sort of third-wave cocktail trend—after the first wave of serious craft cocktails and the second-wave, relaxed, egalitarian, tiki-driven backlash against it. He points to New York bars like Porchlight, where service charges are included in the bill, and Slowly Shirley, which models itself after mid-century European hotel bars. Whether or not this trend is directly influenced by Japanese bars is unclear, but Cisneros does suggest that many of the managers of these hospitality-focused bars have visited Japan and experienced Japanese hospitality firsthand.

But even if a true Ginza style bar never opens in the U.S. (which would be a shame for American drinkers), a whole generation of serious cocktail bars can trace their roots back to Angel’s Share, whether they know it or not. 2016 also saw the birth of several new Japanese bars totally unaffiliated with Angel’s Share. Cisneros helped launch the bar program at Karasu, a Japanese speakeasy in Brooklyn under Waugh’s direction, before moving on to consult on projects like the Michelin-starred Uchu and Bar Moga. Meanwhile, Japanese whisky lounge Bar Jackalope, opened inside the Los Angeles location of whiskey bar Seven Grand, showing the trend isn’t limited to the New York area.

With Americans opening new bars all across the spectrum of Japanese influence, it’s clear the Japanese style has crossed over from expat passion project to mainstream cocktailing. This is good news for fans of the style, as visas are increasingly hard to come by for Japanese expats, making it almost untenable for Japanese immigrants alone to sustain the trend.

Cisneros is already looking forward to the future. “I think if we have this conversation five years from now, it will be a very different conversation.”