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Why Japanese bartenders are the world's best
Style, sophistication and the lab tech's knack for chemistry put the shabby barkeeps in your country to shame
Suffice to say, by bartenders I am thinking neither of college students filling pitchers -- and occasionally themselves -- from a leaky keg, nor of hostesses tipping Suntory Royal into a bleary-eyed salaryman’s glass with their left hand while otherwise engaging their right.
No, the bartenders we need consider here are inheritors of a noble tradition to whose Western imperatives they have added their own special Japanese je ne sais quoi touch of Zen in the night; a dash of obsessive compulsion and the stirring and unshaken belief that -- by God -- booze matters.
And cocktails matter most.
Japanese bartenders do cocktails like chemistry experiments and, faced with the precision of their measurements, half the lab personnel at Cal Tech would slink away in shame, wondering if it’s too late to re-train for refrigerator repair.
But it’s more than precision; they are masters of their arcane mysteries and insouciant enough (should your Japanese be up to it) to discuss proper gin viscosity, the merits of shaking to cha cha cha or samba rhythms or the correct bitters for mango-infused grappa.
Recall, if you will, buying that emerald and diamond brooch at Tiffany’s last year and remember how the salesman lovingly laid it on its pad with a deference suggesting you were in the presence of a holy relic, a talisman not only of transcendent beauty but one capable of redeeming a fallen human race.
That’s pretty much the way your cocktail arrives. You’re almost afraid to breathe on it.
When barman Tom Cruise in the movie “Cocktail” kept three bottles spinning in the air, flashed a boyish grin at four admirers, and plopped down a dripping drink on a sodden napkin, he demonstrated conclusively that (despite what you may have read in the Enquirer) he is neither Japanese nor a Japanese barman.
Well, yes, there are differences between tea ceremony and the Japanese Way of the Cocktail; crystal glassware and polished oaken bars are not quite wabi sabi and tatami mats. And a good daiquiri, while slightly greenish, will not often be confused with matcha -- either while drinking it or 30 minutes later.
Still, tea ceremony and the role the tea master plays in it informs the cocktail in Japan as surely as Western cowboy movies’ “Gimme a shot of rye -- and leave the bottle,” does American (at least) drinking habits.
In the end, for the Japanese barman-sensei, ceremony shapes everything.
His brief is to provide an elegant and ritual pause, a retreat, if not an escape, from a world which (it’s true, I swear) is not always entirely satisfactory.
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In Japan, you pay for the drink, of course, but for its context as much as its content.
Martinis can be made in jam jars and slurped lukewarm as you lie on the kitchen floor in your underwear. And, depending on how your life is going at any given time, that may not be a bad way to proceed.
It is not, however, the experience the Japanese barman attempts to recreate.
He does not present himself in crisp white shirt, vest, sincere bow-tie and a shocking absence of piercing, tattooing and five-day beard so that you can demonstrate that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
The dark side
Sometimes an elegant and ritual pause is a very fine thing, and sometimes you just want a drink. Fast.
A real drink, mind you, one that doesn’t appear to be a child’s portion and one that doesn’t require the barman (as mine in Fukuoka, a former Zen monk, did) to finish breathing zazen while he stirs -- keeps the bourbon from being bruised, don’t you know.
And sometimes, you’d rather not have an evening of drinks cost more than minor heart surgery and have to beg for peanuts only to discover hours later that you paid ¥100 apiece for them.
In short, sometimes grace, talent, ceremony and the silken tie of a noble tradition are not enough and you yearn to snatch your host by one of his slow moving hands and snarl, “Vodka marty, now! And keep ‘em comin’, dammit.”
You may even hope that a couple thousand yen will get the job done. If so, you are probably in the wrong country.
But then, you’ve suspected that for some time, haven’t you?
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