You know the cliche: the Japanese bartender with his Brylcreemed hair, talking about how cold or pure his ice is. He’ll hard-shake you a gimlet in 20 minutes and it will be sublime. Ask for something more creative and he’ll switch the Beefeater for Tanqueray.
There’s a truth behind that cliche, of course. Tokyo is a city of technical masters who don’t fix what ain’t broke. But times they are a-slightly changing, and international ideas that once struggled to cross the Pacific are now reaching Tokyo’s bartenders. You’ll still find the Savoy Cocktail Book in almost every bar, but you might also find something by Jim Meehan, David Kaplan or Tony Conigliaro, At least two of the bars in our top 10 offer drinks flavoured with Japanese cypress – a wood more traditionally used to make bath tubs.
A decade ago, a tour of the top 10 Tokyo bars wouldn’t have strayed from the streets of Ginza. That area is still home to the most exclusive establishments, and with around 800 to choose from, it’s still where any sensible cocktail aficionado should begin. But these days there are landmark bars all over the capital. The young generation of bartenders seems more interested in prestige spirits than prestige addresses.
And the best news of all for the visiting bar-hopper: the new wave are much more likely to speak English.
Star Bar, 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Hisashi Kishi is to cocktails what Jiro Ono is to sushi. Both are masters of their craft who take simple ingredients and work culinary magic.
So it’s fitting that the government marked Culture Day this year by handing them both medals of honour. Kishi isn’t short of accolades. He’s won the IBA world championship, multiple national trophies, and became chairman of Japan’s Bartenders’ Association before he turned 50.
He’s known for simple, often classic cocktails — his Sidecar is a local legend — but the simplicity is deceptive. For each drink he makes, Kishi has analysed how large his ice should be, how long he should shake or stir, which motion to use, and even which material his shaker should be… some drinks call for a steel shaker, others demand plastic. He’s also one of the few bartenders to fret about the size of bubbles in a cocktail, and how it affects the flavour. Few bartenders take technique quite so seriously.
Bar High Five, 4F, 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku
He’s the man who carves ice into diamonds, and the face of a thousand cocktail juries, but when he’s on home turf Hidetsugu Ueno operates out of a surprisingly humble space in a building crammed with bars of all descriptions.
The dimensions work to his advantage, allowing him to get to know his guests, figure out their tastes and serve them drinks they never knew they wanted.