Japan’s new generation of bartenders

by Melinda Joe

Under his fitted black vest, the man beside me on the train wore a white shirt, with long lapels and cuffs trimmed with black piping. A purple silk cravat billowed beneath his chin. Judging from his attire, I’d surmised (correctly) that we were both headed to the same place: the Diageo World Class Japan Final bartending competition. The realm of professional bartending is a highly idiosyncratic and captivating world, as theatrical as the kabuki stage but more intoxicating. Although Japanese bartenders lack the enthusiasm for tattoos common among the international community of mixologists, they share a penchant for sartorial flair.

The World Class competition functions as a lens that brings individual bartenders’ skills and sense of style into sharp focus. Last month, 10 competitors from across Japan gathered in Odaiba for the Japan Final. Over the course of two days, the contestants completed a series of timed, Iron-Chef-like challenges: food matching, where each bartender created an original cocktail to pair with a particular dish; “cocktails against the clock,” a high-pressure test of speed and precision; and “retro chic,” which showcased imaginative reinterpretations of classic cocktails.

I’d arrived as Toshiyuki Kubo, a portly bartender from Aomori Prefecture with a booming baritone and a jokey demeanor, was putting a modern twist on a Bloody Mary. He began by removing his white tuxedo jacket, which concealed a tweed vest, and donning a matching driver’s cap.

“I’m Antonio Kubo,” he proclaimed, before launching into an introduction of his persona (a Sicilian immigrant) and the setting (a speakeasy in Prohibition-era New York City).

The scene that followed was in equal measures a cocktail history lesson, comedic monologue, and cookery program. Kubo added warmed seafood broth to a blend of tomato juice and garlic-infused vodka to “give the vodka a more rounded flavor,” and then poured the mixture into wine glasses the size of fish bowls. He finished the cocktail with a mist of melted butter, dispensed from an atomizer, and served the drinks alongside bowls of liquid-nitrogen-frozen ricotta cheese.

Such elaborate presentations are practice for the World Class Global Final, which takes place in July. The competition attracts contestants from 50 countries and emphasizes storytelling and showmanship, in addition to technique. Traditionally, Japanese bartenders have been more reserved than their counterparts abroad, but after the Japan Final, judge Spike Merchant told me that bartenders here have “gotten a lot more creative” recently.

Minako Tsuji, founder of the cocktail site Drink Planet, agrees but notes that the more conservative style is still prevalent among older bartenders. “Younger bartenders are more interested in food and wine, and they’re looking to learn about new ways of drinking cocktails from bartenders all over the world,” she said.

The winner of this year’s World Class Japan Final struck a balance between the traditional, Ginza-style approach to bartending and the exuberant creativity of younger mixologists. The Nara Hotel’s Tsuyoshi Miyazaki impressed judges with his classically inspired yet inventive recipes and poised delivery. Dressed in a dapper black jacket with a silver tie, his pompadour held in place with pomade, he cut a dashing figure — a fitting representative of Japan’s new generation of bartenders.

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.