Secret revealed: How to be the world’s best bartender

Secret revealed: How to be the world’s best bartender

Manabu Ohtake took the Diageo crown with a cunning blend of planning, gags and dry ice
Manabu Ohtake
Manabu Ohtake clinches the world title on stage in New Delhi in July 2011.

If Japanese bartenders lived up to half their hype, the national trophy vault would be heaving. And competitions would be simpler.

Contestants would turn up, flash their passports and whoever had the one with a chrysanthemum on the cover could pop the trophy in their luggage.

In reality, Japan fares poorly when it takes on the bartending world. The country’s slow, exacting style may not suit the razzamatazz of major contests.

Not so in 2011, when Japanese barmen took the two biggest competitions in the world.

Late last year, Takafumi Yamada of Yokohama bar Noble won the International Bartenders Association's title, but the first world champ of 2011 was Manabu Ohtake.

The head of the Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel’s Bar BelloVisto is the reigning Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year, after taking the title in New Delhi last July.

Though the Diageo contest is only three years old, it’s already a big league event that draws more than 10,000 entrants from 34 countries.

More on CNNGo: The definitive Japanese bar code of conduct

To take the title, Ohtake had to serve six of the world’s most intimidating bartending icons, including former Savoy barman Peter Dorelli and Ginza’s Hidetsugu Ueno.

If Ohtake’s victory looked like a vindication of Japanese bartending, it was. But only a bit.

Stepping up

Manabu OhtakeOhtake applying the garnish to his signature Blanc Neige.

“I tried Japanese-style work with a foreign presentation,” says Ohtake. “Japan’s bartenders are craftsmen. Our drinks are beautiful, precise and clean. We’re great at the technical side of the job, but we aren’t as good at performance.

“We operate one step removed from the guest. This is considered a good demeanor in Japan, but it might not be the same worldwide.”

So, the gentleman who normally tends a tranquil Tokyo hotel bar became a loquacious showman. He built a banter around his drinks, moved faster, cracked jokes.

He also devised the Blanc Neige, a cocktail served under a translucent cloche. When he lifts the lid, a plume of dry ice billows out.

The Blanc Neige took six months to develop. Its first incarnation was served in a martini glass, but Ohtake knew he needed theatrics and he had to talk about his drink, so he added the dry ice and a tale of winter turning to spring -- the dry ice is the snow, the mint sprig and grated lime zest garnish represents the early shoots of spring.

The glass also sits in a little puddle of blue curaçao, resembling the logo of Ciroc vodka, the drink’s base.

You can try the Blanc Neige at the Bellovisto bar, minus the dry ice, presumably because the hotel doesn’t want its bar to look and smell like a discotheque.

It’s a great drink. It starts out tart, has a long, sweet finish and the body is thick with pear compote.

It’s not nauseatingly sickly like so many modern cocktails can be and the credit for that must go to the use of French dessert wine Sauternes as a sweetener. The idea came straight from Ohtake’s other contest triumph -- the 2011 national ice-wine cocktail championship.

Being Japan’s best ice-wine cocktail maker is a lot like being Australia’s snappiest dresser or Germany’s funniest man. Who knew the category existed?

The only ice wine cocktail I’ve ever heard of is usually called “ice wine cocktail” (vodka, ice wine, grape juice) and the first cocktail recipe I’ve seen that features Sauternes is the Blanc Neige.

For this alone, Ohtake deserved his title.

Bar BelloVisto, 40/F Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel, 26-1 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya, Tokyo, +81 (0) 3 3476 3000. Nearest station, JR Shibuya. Open weekdays 4 p.m. - midnight, Saturday, Sunday and holidays 3 p.m.-midnight. Website.

More on CNNGo: Why Japanese bartenders are the world’s best

Nicholas Coldicott is a contributing editor at Whisky Magazine Japan.

Read more about Nicholas Coldicott