Like Da Vinci or Mozart, every bartender wants to make something that lives on after they die,” says Takahiro Watanabe of the Keio Plaza Hotel’s Polestar bar. “A bartender’s dream is to make a cocktail that appears on every bar’s menu.”
Of course, Da Vinci and Mozart never had to worry that all the good ideas had gone. Modern bartenders compete for menu space with martinis, Manhattans, gimlets and daiquiris — the brilliantly simple recipes that have been bar staples for decades. Though ingredients are getting evermore bizarre (Watanabe wonders aloud whether vodka would work with cream cheese), you won’t gain bartending immortality by straying too far from the beaten track.
“It’s good to experiment,” says Watanabe. “There aren’t any taboos this side of sarin gas. But when we enter cocktail competitions, we don’t usually mix something completely unheard of. We take a classic recipe and twist it. It’s standard cocktail plus alpha.”
Earlier this year, one of Watanabe’s creations triumphed in a national contest sponsored by drinks giant Moet Hennessy Diageo. The drink, named the Red Carpet, is a bourbon, amaretto and cranberry concoction garnished with a gold-flecked rose head. It harks back to the 1960s, when cranberry juice became a popular mixer in the United States thanks to a vodka boom and an effort by Ocean Spray and the other berry bigwigs to build a cranberry market that didn’t rely so heavily on the holiday season.
Cocktails such as the Daily Mirror (bourbon, cranberry juice, triple sec) and the Aquarius (Scotch, cranberry juice, cherry brandy) are the forebears of the Red Carpet, with Watanabe giving them a girlie twist of amaretto and a floral garnish. It sure isn’t a macho beverage, but in the right hands up in the Polestar bar, with its 45th-floor window onto Shinjuku’s nightscape, it’s liquid romance.
The Red Carpet’s trophy joins a long list of awards that attest to the Keio Plaza’s utter dominance of hotel-bartending contests in Japan. The Plaza has won the Japan Hotel Bartenders Association’s biennial competition six times out of 11, and according to Watanabe, the hardest part of the contest is getting selected to represent the hotel. “Only one of us gets to compete in the final, so the competition in-house is fierce,” he says.
To learn what sets Keio Plaza bartenders so far apart from the pack, I joined a workshop by the Polestar crew last month. In a country that expects top-level bartenders to pay their dues and “hone their spirit” (clean the bar) for years before they are permitted to serve drinks, this workshop was a rare chance to get some expert tuition without the discipline or dedication normally demanded of a trainee. And since the training I received as a bartender back in Britain took just 10 minutes (how to work the cash register; how to pour a pint; if they want something fancy, ask ’em what’s in it), the two-and-a-half-hour session promised to boost my skills 15-fold.
And it did. My original mentor had told me there was “nothing to bartending,” but Watanabe took me on an interdisciplinary trip through his profession, covering a little history (the Salty Dog — now made with vodka — began life as a gin cocktail), biomechanics (how to position your weight for the optimum shaking stance), chemistry (we shook a sidecar, then stirred one, to see how aerating a drink dramatically changes the flavor), physics (a graph of coldness versus dilution to indicate how long to shake a drink), drama (sure, it’s about making great drinks, but you’re also a performer) and, of course, gastronomy (try making a mojito with champagne instead of rum, or substitute the lime for lemon dipped in coffee powder.)
As the workshop wrapped up, I challenged Watanabe to a Red Carpet duel. He prepared the ingredients for both drinks, and we shook, poured and sipped. Mine emerged darker and speckled with ice; his was frothier and somehow sweeter. Watanabe declared mine better, and I won’t argue with an award-winning bartender.
Polestar is at Keio Plaza Hotel 45F, 2-2-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; open 5 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Mon-Sat (last order 11 p.m.), 4 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Sun (last order 11 p.m.); For more information call (03) 3344 0111