Last summer when I was in Singapore I had the chance to experience Japanese bartending for the first time. I went to Koffe Bar K, a chain with I think just one outpost in Sinagpore. They do ice ball carving there, though I didn't think to ask to see it. The menu was a giant picture book of mostly-awful looking blue and green drinks, but my friend always orders classics like the Sazerac there. I had the only good Singapore Sling I would drink in Singapore.
Before making the drink, the bartender pulled down all the bottles and set them label-facing the customer. His movements were precise and nearly robotic, as he measured each ingredient and mixed the cocktail while keeping his work station meticulous, pausing to wipe away any stray drop with a white bar cloth. When we finished and got up to leave the bar, the bartender literally ran out from behind his post to go hold the door for us. He asked if we were taking a taxi and ran again out to the curb to hail one for us, again holding the door and bowing ridiculously low as he did so.
Later that week I went to Orgo, a rooftop bar specializing in blended mixto margaritas also run by Japanese barmen. They did a surprisingly good job with what sounded like awful recipes. Here too, a formality was in place with each person behind the bar handling specific tasks and each task having a specific movement associated with it. It's kind of a formal form of flair bartending.
What I remember most about these two bars was not the drinks, but the bartenders and the level of service. There are plenty of bars in the US with ultra-attentive and doting bartenders, most often the bars at fine dining restaurants where the bartender is also your waiter and busboy. I've found most of them to have a friendly, rather than formal, demeanor, and that's just fine with me.
There is a lot that American bartenders can learn (or at least study then decide to dismiss or not) from the Japanese style of bartending. From tricks like carving an ice ball (is this neccesary anymore now that there are machines to do it for us?) to the Hard Shake (a shaking technique that may be more about aeration then it is chilling) to the deft handling of bar tools: are these useful in an American bar (professional or home) or just flair?
I hope to find out. I'm attending a seminar on just that topic in New York on May 3 and 4: Japanese Cocktail Technique.
The seminar features Japan's most famous bartender Kazuo Uyeda of Tender Bar in Tokyo, along with Stanislav Varda, a student of Uyeda who spreads the word of the Hard Shake and other Japanese bartending techniques with his Analog Bar Institute. This will be Uyeda's first time speaking in New York, coinciding with the release of the English language version of his book Cocktail Technique.
Part of the session will be dedicated to technique- making ice balls and learning the Hard Shake- and part to philosophy with topics like "exploring color" and "developing your ability to concentrate." I'm also hoping to learn about the mentor and apprentice programs they have in Japan- people tell me that there are several levels of bartenders working beneath the head bartender and that you have to reach a certain level before you are even allowed to pour water for a customer.
Tickets are available at CocktailKingdom.com for $675 for two days. Yep, it's a lot, so there's that.