Hidetsugo Ueno: the art of Japanese bartending

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Location: Japan, UK
Other: People

Among a stellar line-up of speakers one diminutive figure drew the crowds at Imbibe Live: Laura Foster caught up with the softly spoken and nattily dressed Hidetsugo Ueno


Proprietor of Bar High Five in Tokyo, co-creator of the hand-carved ice diamond and possessor of an excellent Elvis quiff, Hidetsugo Ueno is nothing short of a legend. Before taking to the main stage at imbibe live for a demonstration, he shared his take on hospitality, Japanese bartending and being selfish…

Hidetsugo UenoJapanese bartenders

‘We do every single routine every day, every day, every day and learn our postures and stuff. And once you find the right person, they will never go to another place; there’s strict lines. For example for me, I

‘I LIKE TO KEEP IT TRADITIONAL. I’M A CLASSIC OLD-SCHOOL BARTENDER, BUT I’M OPEN-MINDED’
only worked one place when I was in my 20s, one place in my 30s. I opened my own bar when I turned 40. In London, people stay maybe six months, less than two years, [bartenders are]moving around. In other Asian countries in half a year to two years they’re moving around. So next time I visit I don’t see the same face very much. But in Japan there’s always the same face in two years and five years. There’s lots of patience, lots of training, but money comes later.’

Different tastes 

‘My balance might not be the customer’s balance, so I always ask “How’s the drink, is that OK?” Every single customer, every single drink. I was doing this 15 years ago, I’m still doing the same. I’ll probably be doing it 15 years from now. There is no end to making cocktails.’

The Galapagos style

‘Japanese bartenders are a totally different species of bartenders. We are an isolated country, we didn’t get influenced, for many years, like 100 years. But nowadays with YouTube and social networks and everything, it’s getting more borderless, so I’m a bit worried about our Galapagos styles getting mixed together. I like to keep it traditional. I’m a classic old-school bartender, but I’m open-minded. A lot of Japanese bartenders see what’s going on outside of the country: “Wow, wow! So different!” But I want them to keep their tradition: how to handle the bottles and how to polish the glassware well. We care about those things.’

Keep looking up

‘I always tell my new bartenders not to show the top of their head to the customer. You can’t see anything if you do. So pouring, cutting a garnish, our body’s always up, so even if I’m looking here I can see that there’s one person sitting over there.’

Right place, right time

‘If I was on the competitor’s side in a global competition, I’d never win. But I’m at the other side, on the judging panel – easy! I try to do as many international offers as I can, because I speak a bit of English [so there’s]no need for a translator. The Japanese bartender doesn’t speak any English, because first you don’t need it, and second we didn’t like to study at school. I learnt English living in the States when I was a university student for an exchange programme.’

Japanese hard shake

‘The hard shake (a stylised method of shaking that essentially rolls the ice in the shaker to increase aeration) is a patented method by a founder called Mr Kazuo Uyeda from Tender Bar. He invented the name and way of the shake and it’s his technique. He’s been working as a bartender for 50 years. He’s one of the very, very famous bartenders in Japan, and he has a lot of apprentices, who have their own places now.’

The hard shake won’t work for every drink

‘It’s a technique to mix drinks extremely cold, extremely aerated. It makes drinks lighter, easier to drink. But it has to be done by cobbler shaker with a certain kind of ice to get the right dilution. [In the UK you] use tin shakers – there’s a lot of space in the shaker for one drink, so hard shaking doesn’t need to be done by a tin shaker I don’t think, because it gets enough air into the drink easier than the cobbler shaker. We do hard shaking for white spirits, refreshing drinks, like a Gimlet, or a White Lady, but if you do use it for brown spirits like a Sidecar, it’s like a sour water. You lose the flavour.’

Work for yourself as well

‘I work for the place I work. I work for my bartenders, I work for myself. Don’t get me wrong, this is a hospitality business, we need to treat the customer well. But you should work for us, for all of us [so the bar runs]well. That makes the customer happy. One hundred per cent from the bottom of our hearts, we are working for the customers, but at the same time, we are working for ourselves. That is the thing you shouldn’t forget: we are working like a team. Somebody who doesn’t understand this part is doing something wrong.’

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Laura Foster

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