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Rogerio Igarashi and Hisatsugu Saito: Two Bartenders Changing the Face of Asian Drinking Culture

Nikka Whisky’s Coffey Gin and Coffey Vodka have officially launched in Australia.

To celebrate, Nikka and Asahi Premium Beverages brought world-renowned bartenders Rogerio Igarashi, from Tokyo’s highly-awarded Bar Trench, and Hisatsugu Saito, of Bar Ars & Delecto, Shanghai, to the country for two exclusive bar takeovers in Sydney and Melbourne.

Drinks World sat down with the pair before their Sydney event to chat about Nikka’s newest products, Japanese and Chinese drinking cultures, opening up a bar in Asia and one ‘intriguing’ Chinese ingredient.

DRINKS WORLD: What brings you to Australia? Is this your first time here and what are you most looking forward to?

ROGERIO IGARASHI: It’s my first time coming to Australia and I’m really glad Nikka gave us the opportunity to host the masterclasses. We just arrived yesterday, stopping in Melbourne before arriving here in Sydney, and we’re really looking forward to experiencing the bar scene in town.

HISATSUGU SAITO: I actually used to live in Sydney several years ago. It’s been six years since I left, so I’m very excited to return. The bar scene was very small when I was here six years ago. I used to go to places like Zeta Bar and Lobo Plantation, but now there’s a fully developed cocktail scene in both Sydney and Melbourne. We’re excited to be here to give Australian bartenders tips on how you can create great cocktails with these Nikka Coffey Vodka and Nikka Coffey Gin.

DW: In the past few years in Australia, we’ve seen an increasing fascination with Japan and its culture, including its bar culture. Why do you think Australian’s are drawn to Japanese cocktail culture?

RI: I think Australians may be intrigued by the visuals and techniques. You have the American style of bartending and you have the European style of bartending, but the Japanese style is the complete opposite of both. Japanese bartenders have their own style, and I think that attracts the attention of a lot of people because it’s so different. For us, the American way of bartending or the European way of bartending is interesting. We never used to use Boston shakers or big shakers, but little by little we’re beginning to use those techniques as well. I think there is a crossover between both continents and you learn both sides.

DW: How is the Japanese style of cocktail service different from other service styles from around the globe?

RI: Most Japanese bars are quite small and quiet; hence we make quite straightforward drinks. We minimise the steps in our cocktail process in order to reduce our movement. We don’t make drastic movements in front of our customers as, likely, they’re having a good time with someone or having a meeting. If your movements are too drastic, the attention is going to be on the bartender and not on the conversation between the two or three people. I think Japanese bartenders pay attention to those details.

HS: Before I came to Australia I used to work in a Japanese traditional bar. When I came to Australia, I realized there was a very different bartending style. Japanese bartending is more focused on being precise – essentially how clean the drink is. Australian bars, I’ve found, place more focus on creating an enjoyable, lively atmosphere. It’s great that we can learn from the atmosphere of Australian bars and Australian bartenders can learn from Japanese precision bartending. There is that crossover Rogerio was talking about.

Hisatsugu Saito, Bar Ars & Delecto

DW: What inspires you both in your cocktail making?

RI: Inspiration can come from everywhere. Sometimes it’s the music that’s playing, or a new place or situation I’m experiencing. Like yesterday, for example. I was expecting Melbourne to be warm and it was quite cold. So, I came up with a cocktail called ‘The Last Memories of Winter’ – a kind of stirred down, slightly strong, cinnamon and honey type of cocktail. Because I was expecting to be warmer, I created the cocktail name and a cocktail was born yesterday. I think I’m actually going to put it on the menu when I get back to Japan, as we’re starting winter! So, you never know when inspiration is going to strike, but when it does it’s good to take note!

HS: Firstly, I get my inspiration from the flavour profile of a spirit. I then connect it in my mind with something else I think will push certain notes in the product. I often get an interesting idea when I’m eating something. When I try different cuisines, sometimes I’ll find myself thinking, ‘Oh, this whisky flavour can be matched with this’. For example, when eating Chinese food I thought, ‘Oh, maybe Chinese spice and Nikka Gin can work together…’

DW: Rogerio, despite seating only 12 patrons Bar Trench has come to be one of the most renowned venues in the world, ranking No. 16 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2017. How did you go about creating exposure for/building the reputation of this small bar?

RI: I think the people that are coming to the bar must be spreading the word… They’re spreading it so fast! We have a lot of customers that we didn’t have before, especially Asian customers. I’ve seen people come once and then after a year they come again. You spark up a conversation with them and you start to remember them from the first time they came. We’re not a super high volume place – a busy night, we really have 40 or 50 people. But maybe some key members of this group spread the word and voted for us. So, I’d like to say a big thank you to the customers that showed up and enjoyed the bar, and allowed it to become their favourite bar.

DW: What do you think elevates a bar from being a good venue to being a world-class venue, like Bar Trench?

RI: Sometimes I tell a story of when I was in a sports bar. Now, I like my beer with only a small amount of foam. Six months later, I came back to the bar and asked for a beer, and the bartender that was working the first time I went was there. I didn’t say anything, and he brought me a beer with no foam. So, for me, that bar was the best bar in the world. Even though it was just a sports bar. It doesn’t have to be a fancy cocktail bar or a whisky bar. It just depends on the situation and if it emits a good vibe, it’s going to be a great bar for you.

Rogerio Igarashi, Bar Trench

DW: Hisatsugu, you honed your trade at Bar Trench alongside Rogerio before helping to set up Ars & Delecto in Shanghai. What’s it like back tending bar together?

HS: We’ve come together in Australia from different countries – Rogerio from Tokyo, me from Shanghai and Naoki from San Francisco. We used to work together in Tokyo for a long time, so the union feels very comfortable.

RI: We know how to work with each other and so we don’t need to give directions. Everything works perfectly.

DW: Hisatsugu, China is still a burgeoning cocktail market. What have been the initial challenges in opening a bar there?

HS: China’s cocktail bar scene is growing. Every day there is a new bar/place opening and pushing innovation, but the culture is still at the beginning. It looks like there are many bars, but the bartenders are still trying to catch up to the quality and hospitality of other countries.

DW: Did you find similarities between Chinese and Japanese palates and drinking culture?

HS: I think Chinese and Japanese palates are very different. We eat different kinds of food and the temperature/climate is very different. But with Ars & Delecto, we want to showcase Japanese style drinking in China. It means I don’t actively try to make a cocktail for the Chinese palate. We do our own style. We’re hoping to change the drinking culture in China in this way.

DW: Is the Chinese market receptive to the Japanese concept of drinking?

HS: Most of the people that come to the bar are young Chinese people. It’s the opposite to Tokyo, which has more 30-50 year-old drinkers in bars. In China, it’s mostly 20s and early 30s people coming to the bar. They don’t have a lot of knowledge, but they are open to try new things. We try to give them something that sparks their interest and curiosity. 

DW: What type of serves are your customers interested in? Do bespoke, alternative serves interest them or are they more focused on classic cocktails?

RI: In Japan, a lot of people that like the classics, like Manhattans or Dry Martinis. We try to introduce them to the ‘newer’ classics as well, so instead of a Manhattan, we serve a Brooklyn, or instead a normal Negroni, we introduce a Boulevardier. It’s good to see that after a long time sticking to a Negroni or an Old Fashioned they become interested in variations on that drink. Apart from that, we do our own cocktail variations too. It’s nice when the customers come back, and we start to know the types of cocktails that they like.

HS: Most people want to try something they haven’t seen. They’re also very interested in trying the classics, maybe because local Chinese people want to learn about histories. We make both and they want to know about both because they’re curious. They want to learn and study and keep progressing in their knowledge.

DW: What ingredient/s are you excited to be experimenting with right now?

HS: I’m into clarifying ingredients at the moment. I make a milk punch; it’s a classic from 400 years ago, but my clarified version doesn’t look like milk. It looks like water with an unexpected texture. I’ve also been making some martini types using clarified juice. A new style of martini that doesn’t have to be super dry – more of a wet, flavoursome drink. I’m not going to make all my cocktails clarified, but people are very interested as it’s not what they expect.

RI: What about that Chinese milk?

HS: (Laughs) Horse milk?

DW: What’s the flavour of horse milk?

HS: It looks like water, smells like blue cheese, and has a thick and yeasty taste… You can play with it for a martini or a shaken cocktail. China has so many interesting local flavours. It’s big and each city or area has a different cuisine.

DW: What do you think will be the next big thing/trend in Japanese and Chinese drinking cultures?

RI: We are an absinthe bar. When we opened, we thought, ‘Absinthe is going to be the next big trend!’ but that was eight years ago, and the trend never actually caught up. Then people were saying, ‘Mezcal is going to happen in Japan!’, but there’s still not a lot of mezcal available on the market. I don’t know… The spritzer hasn’t happened in Japan yet, or the amaro trend. I still believe that it’s going to come, as the spritzer trend was so popular in Europe, the USA and here in Australia.

The highball has been a drink for a long time, but we’re yet to fully engage with the trend of mixing whisky in cocktails. It’s still not normal or popular, although I think its popularity is going to grow. The norm here of mixing whisky in cocktails is not the norm in Japan, especially if you go to casual bars. They mix gin, vodka and rum but not whisky.

HS: Chinese gin is an interesting one. There are already a few local Chinese gins being produced. The countryside of China has great water sources and many natural ingredients. Japan actually buys spice from China, so why not make Chinese gin inside the country. I also think mezcal and absinthe will come along later.

RI: I forgot about Japanese gin! Last year was huge! It was the year of gin in Japan. Many brands released their own gin using local botanicals, especially the citrus that is not available in other parts of the globe. I completely forgot about that! Last year was the Japanese year of gin!

DW: Which of the Nikka products do you most enjoy working with and what is your favourite drink to make with the spirit?

RI: We’re going to serve two of them tonight. One of them is using the Nikka Vodka, clarified. We’re doing a classic salty dog, but with a little twist as well as a twist on a French 75, using Japanese gin, sparkling sake and honey. We call it the Trench 75. These products were only released last year, so they are still new on the market even for Japan. The gin has a characteristic flavour profile of the Japanese pepper – the sanshō pepper. It is quite strong, which is unusual in comparison to other gins from around the world. I’m quite excited because there is a cocktail that has been made for a long time in our bar that is quite Japanese in its flavor profile, so using a Japanese gin will enhance that 

DW: Do you have any advice for our readers looking to start up a bar in Asia?

RI: If you go ahead and just open your bar, you’ll find it difficult. The culture is different, from the building process through to your expected bar service. You need to approach it with a different mindset. One construction element that you may schedule to be finished by a certain date may take sometimes three or six months more to finish because of the way of thinking. The operation, as well, is different. Learning a little bit about the clientele, how they think and how you should approach them, will make the process smoother than just having a concept and putting the concept into effect in that city. Do your research on what is good service is for the customers in that market.

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT NIKKA COFFEY GIN AND VODKA?

According to Naoki Tomoyoshi, Nikka Global Business Development Manager, the distinct taste of the new release spirits comes from the unique Coffey still distillation.

“The Coffey still gives it the body and the texture. Without that it is just playing around with flavours. This makes spirits that re great for bars, as they’re great in cocktails. It’s hard to create texture in simple cocktails.”

With a creamy mouthfeel and subtle taste, Nikka Coffey Vodka has zesty notes and a rich sweetness on the palate.

The result of 11 selected botanicals, Nikka Coffey Gin highlights the Japanese citruses of yuzu, kabosu, amantsi and shequasar alongside the traditional ingredients of juniper berries, angelica, coriander seeds, lemon and orange peels.

Nikka Coffey Vodka (700ml, 40% ABV, RRP $85) and Nikka Coffey Gin (700ml, 47% ABV, RRP $90) are available at select premium venues and stores.