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Tokyo’s Hidden Cocktail Bars

Bartender Shinobu Ishigaki carefully assembles his Claudia cocktail at Tokyo’s Bar Ishinohana

© Adam Friedberg

Old-school cocktails, stirred and shaken—and rethought, reworked, and remixed—for new age imbibers, are all the rage.

Before my tour of Tokyo’s network of hidden cocktail bars, I’d been warned: Don’t worry about getting drunk; the drinks take far too long to make for anyone to overindulge. I was confused about how a simple Manhattan or sidecar could take ten minutes or more to prepare—until I got to Tender Bar and sat down in front of bartending legend Kazuo Uyeda. It was like watching a tuxedoed surgeon performing a life-or-death operation—but on a martini. As he began the procedure, the Brylcreemed Uyeda laid out all the bottles of ingredients on the bar top, presenting them for the customer’s approval. Then, using tongs, he filled a three-part shaker with ice, inspecting each cube as he went. I noticed that some things one normally finds on the bar were missing: pots of macerating ready-made garnishes—even the lemon wedges were cut to order—and measuring equipment. Instead Uyeda poured each element directly into the shaker, knowing instinctively when he had added enough. Finally he applied his vigorous, stern-browed “hard shake,” a technique he invented and claims is the most efficient way to simultaneously blend and aerate. When it was my turn, he put together a vodka-based drink made with lime juice, Grand Marnier, and a plum liqueur. Like most Japanese cocktails, it was subtle and scented, the kicky citrus lightened by the fruitiness of the plum.

At the nearby Star Bar Ginza, it was a similar scene. Dapper head barkeep Hidetsugu Ueno (who’s since opened his own spot, Bar High Five) brandished a Sweeney Todd–style arsenal of tools: a meat cleaver, used to carve ice from large blocks; a tamahagane knife crafted like a samurai sword, for detailed ice prep; and another blade to slice the hock of ham sitting at the bar’s far end. With a flashlight, he illuminated freshly made drinks in the speakeasylike darkness. But Ueno’s attention to detail wasn’t just about the equipment. When he made my perfect gin martini, he laid down two small napkins in front of me: the first for the drink, and the second, gingerly squared off so it sat perfectly on the bar, as a place to discard the olive pit.

In Tokyo’s thriving cocktail scene, Ueno and Uyeda are gurus. But they are a far cry from the swaggering mixologists of London, New York, or Melbourne who reinvent recipes, using mad scientist–worthy chemicals and methods. Indeed, these humble, highly skilled Tokyo bartenders are a throwback to the golden era of cocktails. “People ask me to show them trends in cocktails in Tokyo, but it’s very conservative here, especially in Ginza,” says Ueno, who insists with pride on calling himself just a bartender.

While some mixologists in international nightlife capitals have developed rock-star reputations, the men who man Tokyo’s bars remain aggressively anonymous other than to those in the know. These tiny hideaways are rarely at street level: Tender Bar shares a grimy fifth-floor lobby with a beauty parlor, while Star Bar Ginza is squirreled away in a barely signposted basement. But even if you manage to find the place, expect a wait—no one is admitted unless there’s a seat available—and a cover charge. (It offsets the lower profits from regulars who sip rather than guzzle.)

The precision that characterizes the drinkmaking process here is regulated by the Nippon Bartenders Association, the group which many of the best barkeeps belong to. It’s the NBA that mandates the free-pour that Ueno and company must learn at the start of their careers. Free-pouring is not only a point of professional pride in Japan but also a necessity. Standard recipes have to be modified because Western-devised drinks are oversize for local tastes, usually about five tablespoons to the Japanese standard of four. “In the States the drinks are much bigger and the balance is completely different—there is much more alcohol,” explains Tomoyuki Kitazoe, who helms Bar Rage in Tokyo’s Minato district. Drinks consultant Angus Winchester, who has been a regular on the Tokyo cocktail scene for some time, agrees. “Most cocktails here are very small,” he says. “And the glassware is so delicate, if you look at it too hard, it may break.”

The emphasis on presentation also extends to garnishes. At Bar Ishinohana, Shinobu Ishigaki’s Claudia, a mix of rum, vermouth, pineapple juice, and caramel syrup, comes with a maraschino cherry, a pineapple leaf, a star-shaped radish slice, and a piece of lime peel twirling around the stem like a ponytail. (The drink is named for Italian actress Claudia Cardinale and inspired by her role in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard.) For his famed “coral” garnish, Kazuo Uyeda dips a Champagne glass in blue curaçao, then into an inch-deep bowl of salt. The crusty rim has more than just an aesthetic purpose: It also gives a salty kick to a sweet drink and introduces Japan’s much-cherished umami flavor. The blue curaçao is also an indication of a certain obsession with color. In Japan it’s important that drinks be pastel, rather than bold. The best bartenders, for example, always cut cranberry juice with lemon or grapefruit juice to soften the jewel tones.

If the country’s leading bartenders are like cocktail surgeons, their assistants are the hardworking medical students, some practicing their technique all night after the bars close. Aspiring bartenders are sent to Tokyo’s Kappabashi district, home to the stores that supply razor-sharp sushi knives and other restaurant staples, to pick up their tools. Individual bars often expect staff to seek out suppliers—lemon or orange farmers in the countryside, for instance—and lock up deals for their best produce. Maverick barkeep Tomoyuki Kitazoe even set up his own shop, Freshman, which provides grade-A produce to his colleagues.

Nowhere is the Tokyo bartenders’ passion and skill more evident than in the cult of ice. The obsession with perfecting frozen water is Japan’s greatest contribution to cocktail culture at large. Top bartenders here run each cube individually under mineral water, to wash off sharp edges, before scanning it like a production-line supervisor to check quality. Bartending academies include icemaking and ice carving in the curriculum, and bars contract for regular deliveries in slab form, at about 50 cents a pound, from specialist firms. To create professional-grade ice, these companies freeze water very slowly, over two or three days, beginning at the edges of the case, which causes air and impurities to move to the center. After the block is fully frozen, the center section is removed, leaving the ice pure and clear. Prepared this way, it has a diamondlike durability: superdense and slow to melt. And top-tier tenders always put their painstakingly carved cubes in sawara-wood buckets. Often used to keep cooked rice warm and sticky, this particular type of cypress is equally good at insulating ice.

There’s even a glossy magazine, put out by the Japanese Icemakers Union, called Junpyo, or Perfectly Pure Ice, which showcases the latest techniques and products. A 2004 profile of Ueno focused on his signature trick: a “brilliant-cut” ice cube that resembles a giant diamond. Ueno is fastidious about the temperature at which he stores his ice—negative four degrees Fahrenheit—though he waits until it thaws slightly before carving.

However many drinks he is juggling, Ueno always goes to the door to wave off a departing customer. Such courtesy is yet another reminder of how reassuringly old-fashioned the Tokyo cocktail scene is. That’s a good thing, according to consultant Angus Winchester. “Tokyo is the only place in the world a decent bartender will truly learn something,” he says. “Bartending is like dancing—some people make it look good; some make it look like they’re being electrocuted. Japanese bartenders? It’s so beautiful and so elegant that it’s a ballet behind the bar.”

Top Spots

They’re most likely not in any guidebook. They’re often unmarked spots in anonymous office buildings. Only Tokyo’s cocktail cognoscenti know where to find them. Here, our insider’s guide to the city’s best bars.

Bar High Five

Longtime Star Bar Ginza frontman Hidetsugu Ueno has now opened his own spot, this 18-seat hideout nearby. “There’s no concept,” he says. “Guests are free to imagine one for themselves.” Ueno has long been known for his masterful White Lady (Beefeater gin, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice), but at Bar High Five he’s also reexploring international classics—like the piña colada and the Singapore sling—using fresh fruit. In his coladas, for example, he uses a 1:4 mixture of home-frozen coconut milk and pineapple juice. 26 Polestar Bldg., 4th fl., 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3571-5815

Bar Ishinohana

Shinobu Ishigaki runs the bar here—narrow and filled with mod furniture, it looks like a seventies Hollywood apartment. Ishigaki is known for his elaborate garnishes and offbeat but effective flavor combinations, such as passion-fruit vodka with espresso. In recent years he has been racking up prizes at international cocktail competitions and is the reigning star of the Nippon Bartenders Association (NBA). Daini Yaki Bldg., B1, 3-6-2 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/5485-8405

Bar Rage

Tomoyuki Kitazoe left the NBA to set up his mold-breaking bar, which focuses on fruit-based drinks. Known for the simplicity of his recipes, Kitazoe now makes his own herbal or fruit syrups instead of using commercially produced cordials. “I don’t like elaborate garnishes—I use a sprig of herbs, or half a fruit that’s been grilled, something that looks great but can be eaten as well.” Aoyama Jin & IT Bldg., 3rd fl., 7-13-13 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/5467-3977

Doulton Bar

Seventysomething owner Minoru Kokuzawa tends this very small bar, offering, among other things, an excellent selection of whiskey. Order Kokuzawa’s specialty: a martini made from chilled Beefeater gin and Noilly Prat vermouth, stirred with no ice, a drop of orange bitters, a spray of lemon zest, and an olive, and served in an ice-cold glass. The orange kick is a nod to the Martinez, the iconic 19th-century drink that birthed the modern martini. Soiree de Ginza Bldg., 4th fl., 6-6-9 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3571-4332

Star Bar Ginza

Despite Ueno’s departure, this place still has a great bartender in owner Hisashi Kishi. The director of technical research for the NBA, Kishi is extra fastidious when it comes to recipes. Take a gin and tonic, for instance, for which he insists on using two cubes of perfectly smooth, jag-free ice: The rougher the surface, the faster the tonic bubbles—and flattens. Sankosha Bldg., B1, 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3535-8005

Tender Bar

Kazuo Uyeda is credited with inventing the intense “hard shake”—a brutally vigorous riff on the casual shake most bartenders use—which not only maximizes aeration but also helps blend in stubborn ingredients like egg whites or cream. Uyeda does not have a single signature drink; rather, he creates a new numbered cocktail each August 25, to celebrate the date the bar opened. For the tenth anniversary he developed the vodka-based Tender 10, with lime juice, Grand Marnier, and Oldesloer Mirabell. Nogakudo Bldg., 5th fl., 6-5-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3571-8343

Y&M Kisling

Owner Nobuo Abe believes it takes just three years to learn the basics of bartending, but two decades to become a master. Order the bar’s trademark Kaikan Fizz, served garnish-free in a highball glass: Gordon’s gin, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, whole milk, simple syrup, all shaken together then topped off with soda water. 7-5-4 Ginza, 7th fl., Chuo-ku; 81-3/3573-2071

Do Try This at Home

Many of the best cocktails in Tokyo are perfected versions of classics—with an inventive twist or two—as in the recipe below from Hidetsugu Ueno at Bar High Five.

Bloody Mary With Fresh Tomato

1. Take one large vine-ripened tomato; cut it into rough chunks.

2. Place the chunks in a glass with three tablespoons of Absolut Peppar vodka.

3. Mash the mixture by hand with a butter knife.

4. Mix with an immersion blender, keeping it completely submerged.

5. Place a sieve over a plastic container and pour the mixture through to strain out the seeds and skin.

6. Push through the remaining liquid with a pestle.

7. Prepare an old-fashioned glass with a rim of salt and pour in the strained mixture. With tongs, place a single large ice cube in the liquid.

8. Squeeze a slice of lime into the liquid, then add the slice itself to the drink.

9. Add a grinding of pepper and serve.

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