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Japan’s cocktail king leaves the world reeling from his alco-antics

by Frank Czucha

Pretty soon there is going to be a backlash against the Japanese for their habit of heading overseas and outshining the locals in some of their proudest vocations.

In recent years they have beaten the French at baguette baking, upstaged the Italian pizzaiolos, won a marathon in Greece and repeatedly outguzzled the world in gluttonous overeating competitions in America. Now there is Keisuke Goto, the new TGI Friday’s World Champion Bartender.

Though its famous striped canopies hang in more than 50 countries, Friday’s is unmistakably American. Born in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1965, the chain became the template for casual American dining — wacky wall decor, singalong birthdays and the Long Island Iced Tea.

The chain also brought “flair bartending” to the world’s attention. In 1987, it staged an intracompany World Bartender Championship that judged contestants on their theatrics as much as the quality of their drinks. The winner, John J. B. Bandy, went on to choreograph Tom Cruise in the following year’s “Cocktail,” a movie in which our hero becomes a sensation after learning to juggle drinks in a TGI Friday’s.

The Friday’s World Bartender Championship is now an annual event. At the 2009 finals held at TGI Friday’s headquarters in Carrollton, Texas, last month, 26-year-old Keisuke Goto beat seven fellow finalists from an original pack of 8,000.

He took the crown with a 10-minute performance in which he juggled his way to a Pina Colada, a Cape Codder (vodka cranberry) and a Hollywood Night (a Malibu and Midori concoction that the menu suggests may make you “see stars”). The judges were looking for mixing skill, pouring accuracy, mastery of the Friday’s cocktail repertoire and, of course, flair.

“I cannot find the words to describe how I feel right now. It’s a great honor,” said Goto after his win, describing his performance as “perfect.”

He is now preparing to enter the Asian heat of Roadhouse World Flair, the planet’s premier flair-bartending competition, to be held at Club Asia in Tokyo in July.

Goto joined the Ueno-Chuodori branch in Tokyo as a bartending novice, pouring drinks the conventional way and spending three hours a day practicing his helicopter spins and waterfalls before opening time. After a year he began performing for customers; after 4 1/2 years he was world champion, taking home a $10,000 check, a trophy, a diamond and a full-size propeller engraved with his name and title.

Goto says he hopes his win will boost interest in flair bartending in Japan. “If you ask most people in this country right now, they’ve never heard of it. I’d like to help spread the word.”

Though “performance” in Japanese bartending still usually means cocking your finger when you pour, there is a growing interest in flair. The All Nippon Flair Bartenders’ Association runs an annual competition and there are now at least a dozen specialist flair bars nationwide.

Meanwhile, even in the higher echelons of the bartending world, there is a growing taste for dramatic showmanship. Order a Bamboo in Ginza’s High Five bar, or a Gaelic espresso in Kyoto’s K’Ya and you will be treated to an attention-grabbing spectacle (though in both cases the bartenders can explain the science behind their techniques and how it pertains to the flavor of the drink — not always a concern for the flair artist).

Goto believes that, while flair is still a fledgling pursuit in Japan, it could prosper here if it can overcome a few cultural hurdles.

Last weekend, back in his Ueno branch, Goto mixes a drink. He sends bottles whirling through the air, rolls them down his arm and bounces them into the shaker. He spins glasses behind his back while he juggles shakers, ingredients and his hat. After a few minutes of flawless acrobatics, he slams the drink together. Of the 12 customers around the bar, only two are paying the slightest attention. They sit silently watching the new world champion perform, then return to their conversation.

“Yes, it’s a bit different from America,” says Goto.

Fancy some flair?

Inspired to check out a cocktail served up in spectacular style? Well, in Japan just now, there aren’t exactly 1,001 places to go, but among the best out there to help put extra zing into your thing are the following fun-filled locales: * TGI Friday’s Ueno-Chuodori branch at 2F Nagafuji Bldg. Honkan, 4-9-6 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo. For details, visit www.tgifridays.co.jp or call (03) 5807 9655.

* On The Spree at B1F Nishi-Azabu MK Bldg., 4-1-4 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo. For details, visit www.onthespree.com or call (03) 6906-9345. * Amazing Bar Xi at 2-2-2 Chuo, Hita, Oita, Kyushu. For details, visit www.bar-xi.com or call (0973) 24-5331. * Tatula at 5F Hasegawa Bldg., 3-2-29 Sakae, Naka-ku, Nagoya. For details, visit www.tatula.jp or call (052) 242-7443. * The Flair Bar at 1-5 Mageshi-cho, Utsunomiya, Tochigi. For details, visit www.flair-bar.com or call (028) 633-6300.