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Why Bartenders in America Are Turning to Japanese-Style Bartending

Japan’s approach to the craft elevates it to an art form

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Tokyo Record Bar
Noah Fecks/Tokyo Record Bar

With seasonal produce, impossibly clear hand-chipped ice, and precise yet fluid movements, bartenders in Japan elevate the act of building a cocktail into an art form, sometimes asking as much as the cost of a wagyu dinner in return. “Since ancient times, we have strived to master various disciplines,” explains Sumire Miyanohara, co-owner of the lauded Orchard Bar in Tokyo’s tony Ginza neighborhood. As she sees it, Japanese bartending is one such example of the country’s perfectionist approach to honing a craft.

“In Japanese bartending, the emphasis isn’t on speed, or on how much alcohol you’re getting in a drink, or bar-hopping,” explains New York-based barman Frank Cisneros, who relocated to Tokyo for a year in 2015 to train the Mandarin Oriental’s bar team on progressive American cocktailing. Now back in the U.S., Cisneros is flipping the script, working as a consultant in Manhattan and educating American bartenders on Japanese mixology. And he’s not the only one keen to share the philosophy behind Japanese bartending — thanks in part to America’s burgeoning craft cocktail culture, and the country’s growing interest in traditional Japanese cuisine, Japanese bartending is inspiring a league of bartenders from coast to coast.

With roots in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies from the 16th century, Japanese mixology uses the best seasonal ingredients and the best tools to “create cocktail[s] for the moment,” according to Tokyo barman Gen Yamamoto, who commands an omakase cocktail counter of the same name. Japanese cocktail bars also take their cues from Ginza-style bartending, named for the Tokyo neighborhood where many of the city’s top cocktail dens reside. In this style, bartenders typically prepare drinks one at a time, with a sense of quiet focus. They then place the bottles for a given drink in front of the imbiber and serve the final libation in hand-crafted glassware atop an otherwise clutter-free bar.

The recent influx of Japanese-inspired bar concepts covers a few different aspects of Japanese bartending. Some bars narrowly focus on one area of expertise, like rare whisky, while others celebrate Asian flavors like shiso and yuzu or adhere to Ginza-style presentation.

“I can say that right now what is going on in the Japanese bar scene has been translating to the bar scene in the U.S., and vice versa,” says New York-based barman Kenta Goto, owner of the city’s two-and-a-half-year-old izakaya-style drinking den Bar Goto. While Japanese bartenders have typically pursued “perfect execution of cocktails,” and the U.S. has focused on creative drams, Goto says he ”see[s] some of the Japanese precision coming into the U.S. cocktail scene, and that bartenders in Japan are becoming increasingly more creative.”

In the U.S., New York City has emerged as both a leader in traditional Japanese cuisine and an early pioneer of Japanese cocktails. In 1993, the city landed not only its first Japanese craft cocktail bar, but one of its first craft cocktail bars in general, where fresh ingredients replaced canned and boxed staples, and vested bartenders paid a then-unseen attention to well-built drinks. Today Angel’s Share counts a wall of whisky and unsung Japanese ingredients like kabosu (a Japanese citrus fruit) and kinako (roasted soybean flour) among its ingredients. It continues to focus on precision, consistency, and detail — three hallmarks of Japanese cocktail-making.

The city got its second notable Japanese bar more than a decade later. In 2007, former Angel’s Share manager and bartender Shin Ikeda decamped to a covert, subterranean Tribeca space to open his own ode to Japanese bartending, serving a deep list of whisky and whiskey from Japan and beyond, and an abundance of Japanese cocktails.

Increasingly, Japanese bar programs are debuting throughout the country. Below, America’s most significant booze programs dedicated to Japanese cocktail culture, from rare whisky poured over hand-chipped ice to seasonal elixirs laced with ume and sakura.

Bar Goto
Daniel Krieger/Eater NY

Bar Goto

Location: New York
Opened: July 2015
Key players: Kenta Goto

Bar Goto kicked off New York’s contemporary Japanese bar movement when it debuted nearly three years ago. Pegu Club alum Kenta Goto’s sliver of an izakaya-style bar serves just a handful of seasonally changing libations built with Japanese ingredients, like plum brandy and miso. Cocktails pair with Goto’s short list of bar bites, such as miso wings and okonomiyaki (a savory grilled egg and cabbage pancake topped with mayo), inside a cramped space reminiscent of Japan’s many tiny bars.

Bar Leather Apron

Location: Honolulu
Opened: January 2016
Key players: Justin Park, Tom Park

One of the most distinguishing factors about bars and restaurants in Tokyo is their size. Some have as few as four seats, especially in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai neighborhood, where hundreds of micro venues are packed into narrow alleys like Jenga blocks. These cramped spaces served as the inspiration for downtown Honolulu’s essential 25-seat Bar Leather Apron. Here, co-owner and head bartender Justin Park mixes and muddles a spate of classic and modified classic cocktails, alongside signature selections, many flavored with Japanese ingredients. An entire section of the menu is devoted to highballs. The No. 1 spirit here is whisk(e)y.

Karasu

Location: Brooklyn
Opened: May 2016
Key players: Chris Buono, Thomas Waugh

In 2016 Brooklyn landed Karasu, a Japanese bar-focused restaurant whose opening cocktail list was written by Major Food Group’s beverage director, Thomas Waugh, with help from Cisneros. The two built an expert list of Japanese cocktails with whisky and shochu, served in beautiful vintage vessels with flashy garnishes. Now, bartender Chris Buono heads up the Japanese-influenced cocktail collection.

ROKC

Location: New York
Opened: July 2016
Key players: Shigefumi Kabashima

Former Angel’s Share barman Shigefumi Kabashima debuted ROKC, an intimate ramen and raw bar concept focused on blending beautiful beverages, in 2016. Drinks here embrace savory, umami-leaning flavors like seaweed and matcha. They come presented in creative vessels, including light bulbs and clam shells, with elaborate garnishes.

Bar Leather Apron
Kathy YL Chan

Adana

Location: Seattle
Opened: February 2017
Key players: Shota Nakajima

Last year, Shota Nakajima flipped his upscale kaiseki restaurant Naka into the more affordable Adana. While the dining room now offers more laid-back three-course set menus, the bar and lounge area is open to walk-ins and celebrates Japanese whisky and Japanese-influenced cocktails, from highballs to shiitake- and green tea-laced numbers.

Tongue-Cut Sparrow

Location: Houston
Opened: February 2017
Key players: Bobby Heugel

Celebrated Houston barman Bobby Heugel’s 25-seat Tongue-Cut Sparrow derives inspiration from Tokyo’s many tiny bars, and the hospitality they present. That means oshibori, warm, rolled-up hand towels for all guests when they sit; properly chilled glassware; gratis bar snacks; and a list of spirit-forward cocktails divided between classics and house creations.

Bar Moga

Location: New York
Opened: April 2017
Key players: Frank Cisneros

Last spring, New York City landed 1920s-themed Bar Moga, a Japanese bar conceived by the team behind Lower East Side sake lounge SakaMai. When Bar Moga opened, drinks were organized by Milk & Honey alums Becky McFalls-Schwartz and Natasha Torres, but as of last month Cisneros has moved in as consulting bar director. He revamped the space with attention to shochu and Japanese whisky (currently stocking over 40 bottles); added an omakase cocktail tasting option, in addition to libations with Japanese ingredients like kabosu (Japanese citrus) and yuzu kosho; and began a la minute ice carving.

Tongue-Cut Sparrow
Julie Soefer/Tongue-Cut Sparrow

Uchu

Location: New York
Opened: June 2017
Key players: Frank Cisneros

Sushi on Jones founder Derek Feldman dropped Uchu, a hybrid sushi bar and kaiseki counter with America’s most comprehensive collection of Japanese whisky — at the time counting around 72 bottles (the collection is now up to 85). In fact, Cisneros designed the place to fit Ginza specifications: no more than eight seats; a minimalist bar top devoid of syrups, bitters, or other tools; and omotenashi, the Japanese approach to hospitality that prioritizes the guest’s experience. There’s also beautiful, delicate glassware (nothing is ever mass produced), a tranquil environment, and a focus on each individual guest, with bartenders making one drink at a time.

Tokyo Record Bar

Location: New York
Opened: August 2017
Key players: Ariel Arce

As a follow-up to her sleek West Village Champagne parlor, Ariel Arce turned the cramped basement space — inspired by Tokyo’s many tiny bars — into the 18-seat Tokyo Record Bar, a den for vinyl records and a set Japanese menu that ends with a fat slab of pizza. (A playful nod to those who fill up on pizza after sushi.) To drink, there’s sake, low-proof sake, and shochu cocktails, plus bubbles and beer.

Izakaya Ronin

Location: Denver
Opened: December, 2017
Key players: Corey Baker, Dusty O’Connell

A sexier take on casual Japanese izakayas, Izakaya Ronin is split between an upstairs sushi and small plates engagement and a lower-level late-night whisky bar that also serves alcohol-friendly snacks from 5 p.m. until late. Whiskies can cost up to $400 a pour, but Japanese-inspired cocktails are a bit more wallet-friendly, running $10 to $15.

The Bar at Hotel Kabuki

Location: San Francisco
Opened: January, 2018
Key players: Shel Bourdon, Stephanie Wheeler

The bar within newly renovated Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco’s Japantown neighborhood channels a minimalist aesthetic, in an effort to better highlight its collection of Japanese beers, booze, and other beverages. Cocktails center on whisky, and while some are flavored with the somewhat ubiquitous citrusy notes of yuzu, others dive into more interesting ingredients, like bamboo ash salt and maitake mushrooms.

Uchu
Kathryn Sheldon/Uchu

Sushi Azabu

Location: Miami
Opened: January 2018
Key players: Plan Do See America, Katsuaki Asai

Miami is now home to one of the country’s most sophisticated cocktail experiences. Sushi Azabu is the Miami offshoot of the lauded New York sushi den of the same name. And the Miami Azabu experience comes with a nine-seat Japanese whisky-heavy cocktail bar helmed by Kobe resident Katsuaki Asai. Splitting time between Japan and Miami, Asai plans to visit Miami two to three times per year to present patrons with one of the country’s truest Japanese imbibing experiences.

Nunu

Location: Philadelphia
Estimated opening: Spring 2018
Key players: Shawn Darragh, Ben Puchowitz

Shawn Darragh and Ben Puchowitz, of Philadelphia ramen spot Cheu Fishtown, are scheming a Japanese bar inspired by the many small, expertly executed cocktail haunts they visited on a recent R&D trip in Osaka. Expect a menu built of Japanese staples like sours and highballs (the duo is planning to partner with Suntory on a highball machine), plus a few more complicated drinks that call for hand-carved ice, chilled glassware, and Japanese ingredients. Drinks will be built in front of each guest, as is the Ginza-style custom.

Kumiko

Location: Chicago
Estimated opening: Summer 2018
Key players: Julia Momose, Noah Sandoval, Cara Sandoval

Julia Momose is responsible for the expert and sophisticated beverage program at two-Michelin-starred tasting menu haunt Oriole, and with the same team, she’s planning to launch a Japanese-influenced cocktail bar. However, Kumiko won’t necessarily embrace Japanese ingredients; rather, the service model will lean toward omotenashi, and drinks will follow the Japanese aesthetic — wed to precision, consistency, and attention to detail. Think 15 cocktails available a la carte or via an omakase tasting menu, with paired bites by Oriole executive chef Noah Sandoval.

Kitsune

Location: New York
Estimated opening: TBD
Key players: Shin Ikeda

While it’s still unclear whether Kitsune, the proposed Japanese restaurant and bar with drinks designed by B-Flat proprietor Shin Ikeda, will come to fruition, if it does, one can anticipate an 18-foot bar and cocktails hinged on “precision, sophistication, and [the] elegance of Japanese bartending.”

Kat Odell is a food and travel writer, and the author of Day Drinking.
Editor: Monica Burton