Last month, the former Tales of the Cocktail International Bartender of the Year, Hidetsugu Ueno was in Sydney for a series of appearances and Masterclasses.
Our good friends at MONIN sponsored Ueno-San’s visit, assisted by Über Bar Tools and Bare Bones Ice Co, to deliver an Ice Carving Masterclass at The Ivy and one at Barangaroo House for the Solotel Group bartenders.
In activating their global bartender engagement platform, ‘Bartending as an Art’, with a series of masterclasses in the Asia-pacific markets, in the lead-up to the MONIN Cup Final in Paris later in the year, the Monin brand was able to present an engaging and memorable masterclass experience for those lucky enough to be in attendance and to learn from one of the great bartenders in the world today. Monin’s Australian Ambassador Karel “Papi” Reyes mentioned, “Hosting Ueno-San in Sydney was an amazing opportunity for Monin Australia to put on a good show for the trade”.
It’s been 10 years since Ueno-San was last in Australia and a lot has changed in the bartending landscape since then. At the time the ‘Japanese School’ of bartending was only just emerging as a new global trend. Since then the art and craft of bartending has evolved massively and the key pillars of the Japanese style – customer service, guest experience and precision ice craft, have been incorporated into the highest levels of what is considered the pinnacle of modern bartending today.
What’s most impressive, when you meet Ueno-San is how humble and single-minded he is. When he shares his philosophy on bartending, it’s not from the perspective of being better, it’s just that it’s different and driven by the obsession of making everyone’s experience in his bar as good as it can be. When the bar is open he is the consummate host and ‘showman’, however, when the people have gone home, he can relax into his natural type of being chilled and relaxed, just like you or me.
At its heart, the Japanese style of bartending is about making people feel good about themselves through visual precision, elegance and conservation of movement, attention to detail and engaging in the bartender rituals of serving a drink that keep the artifice of bartender majesty alive. And it’s the astute or (as Gary Regan espoused years ago), “the mindful” bartender that can read their guests and deliver the experience they are after.
What’s known to many conscientious bartenders today, is that it’s the little things that can make the biggest difference in the quality of the guest experience and their potential to spread a word of mouth recommendation for their bar and the drinks they serve. At Ueno-San’s Bar High Five, they have no cocktail menu. He sees that is one of the first barriers to engagement and conversation in determining what a guest is truly after. By asking a person what types of flavours they like and styles of drinks they prefer, his bartenders can create a bespoke cocktail for the guests, with each person feeling like they had a special drink created for them.
Ice Game, Strong?
Of course, Ueno-San has become synonymous with his use of ice to enhance the enjoyment of whisky or straight spirits. Ice balls are something they begin preparing (from large cubes of ice 7cm x 7cm) before the bar is open and put the finishing touches on the ball before serving it. The ice ball gives a slower dilution, since there are no edges for the melting to start from. Ueno also creates his ‘famous’ Ice Diamond (carved from 15 year old folded iron knife) for certain whiskies where a little more dilution is called for, as is the case for cask strength whiskies and higher proof spirits. Ueno-San joked that some people are now expecting him to lift his ice game and carve more intricate ice sculptures, like a ‘brilliant cut’ diamond or perhaps even an Ice Dragon! To that, he said, “I’m a bartender. I cannot do that”, and we all laughed, feeling good about ourselves.
WORDS Ben Davidson