Tokyo's Mix Master
September, 2010 (Bloomberg Markets) -- Bartending legend Kazuo Uyeda shakes drinks the hard way -- and serves complex, customer-pleasing creations that go down easy.
Kazuo Uyeda holds a filled cocktail shaker at a precise slant and then pumps his elbows in a three-point twisting motion so furiously that his arms are a blur. The slim Japanese master bartender is showing off his much-discussed “hard shake” in New York’s Hiro Ballroom.
The recent fascination in the West with the mystique of Japanese cocktail techniques has drawn more than 100 top bartenders and enthusiasts to this two-day seminar with Uyeda. In Tokyo, the 65-year-old is a legend and a major player in the city’s emergence as a world cocktail capital. As he pours his City Coral cocktail into a glass with a smart wrist flourish, Uyeda invokes the country’s ancient culture and rituals to explain the unique Japanese drink-making style. “I apply the motto of sumo wrestling -- shingitai, or heart, technique, body -- to the creation of every drink,” he says. In other words, meticulous attention to every detail.
The hard shake, for example, is the result of Uyeda’s decades of experimentation to perfect a drink’s texture and temperature. He claims it whips tiny, dense bubbles of air into the liquid, which give the drink extra smoothness. The aeration acts like a cushion that prevents the bite of the alcohol from hitting the tongue, and his drinks do seem creamier.
The cult of ice in Western bars today comes from Japanese mixologists, who learn to carve ice balls faceted like diamonds. They’re also obsessed with seasonality and color, which Uyeda says is essential to making cocktails look delicious. With a color wheel as a backdrop, he whips up his M-30 Rain cocktail, named after a song in the score of the movie “The Last Emperor” and invented as a gift for its composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto. To evoke the falling-rain theme, Uyeda adds a tiny bit of blue curacao to the vodka, grapefruit liqueur and lime juice in the shaker. He selects only ice cubes that are about 2 inches (5 centimeters) square, which he considers the perfect size for this particular cocktail. Then comes the hard shake.
The resulting drink is pastel blue-gray; Uyeda says bold colors never look delicious. It’s soft, light and complex, like most Japanese cocktails, and has a tangy bittersweet kick. If a drink can evoke a misty day, this one does.
After lunch on the second day, I chat with Uyeda through a translator. “In the West, bartenders don’t think enough about the guest,” he says in his soft, courteous manner. “The most important part of the Japanese way of the cocktail is reading the customer’s subtle needs.”
Every Aug. 25, Uyeda creates a new cocktail at his stylish Tender Bar to celebrate the date he opened the place. Pinkie cocked, he’ll pour it into glasses polished to perfection. Will it be as delicious as his legendary, prizewinning Pure Love (gin, creme de framboise, lime juice and ginger ale)? It’s worth a pilgrimage to the fashionable Ginza district to find out.
Columnist Elin McCoy is based in New York. firstname.lastname@example.org
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