Why Japan Does the Art of the Cocktail Better Than America

Credit: Photographs by Irwin Wong

Inside a tall, bland office tower in downtown Sapporo is the greatest drinking experience you've never heard about. The bar is quiet, the drinks are perfect, and the bartender is irreproachable. To get there, you need to take an elevator to the second floor and walk through a quiet, brightly lit hallway. Except for a sign on the door, you would hardly know it's there. But stepping into the tiny dark Bar Ikkei is like crossing the threshold of a shrine: You've entered a space where ritual is king, and now you're part of the ceremony.

In the U.S. we go to bars to meet people, to bullshit, to play darts, and, if we're lucky, well, to get lucky. Bartenders are there to make drinks — and to make it snappy. But in Japan, the cultural center of food as performance (sushi bars, hibachi grills, elaborate tea ceremonies), bartending at places like Bar Ikkei is a high art. Ginza-style bars, as they're sometimes called — after the tony neighborhood in Tokyo where they proliferate — are the spaces behind the waterfall: quiet, intimate refuges from the public where the only person with whom you're expected to commune is your host, the bartender. Here you are not loud, and you are not in a hurry.

"You don't go to Thomas Keller's French Laundry because you're starving, and you don't go to these bars because you're thirsty," says a whiskey specialist for Whyte & Mackay, Neyah White, who's traveled to Japan more than a dozen times. "You go because you're a patron of the arts."

Ginza-style bars specialize in Japanese whiskey and all the cocktails you can make with it, but you can also get exceptional drinks mixed with other spirits. Located on the upper floors of office towers in rooms with no windows, such bars often have no presence on the street (some don't even have an official address); you could walk the same block hundreds of times without realizing they're there. They accommodate fewer than 15 people.

In superficial ways a Ginza-style bar resembles an American bar — bar stools, small tables, some cool jazz on the stereo — but everything is still, immaculate, perfectly ordered, and just so. Before a wall of glittering bottles, your bartender wears an elaborately detailed costume with arm garters, cuff links, and a brocade waistcoat. He smiles softly and hands you a warm towel. As you clean your hands and face, you recall the water basins outside Shinto shrines, where a visitor is expected to perform temizu, a hand-washing ritual, before entering. Thus purified, you're ready to begin. But before you continue, you must know a few things.

The guy making your drink is the joint's owner.

The bartender is expected to stand behind the pine every night, and in many cases a bar won't open if the owner is unavailable. As with other Japanese traditions, a bar owner will sometimes take apprentices, dedicated adherents who share the bartender's devotion to the guest's experience. It takes years to learn the craft, because every detail of the bartender's job — every pour, shake, and stir — has been carefully considered and is done with purpose, so that once you step inside, you know you're in the hands of a master.

The bartender is your guide.

You can order the drink you want, but you should defer to the bartender, who takes pride in his empathic ability to determine what drink you need. This is omakase-style drinking, or "trust the bartender." Inspired by the time of day, the season, or some subtle quality about you that he finds inspirational, the bartender may mix a variation on a forgotten classic like a White Lady, a Negroni made with a 30-year-old bottle of Campari, or an off-the-cuff concoction featuring homemade absinthe, local bitter herbs, and yuzu.

The ice is crucial.

About 10 years ago, YouTube videos surfaced showing Japanese bartenders hacking away at giant blocks of ice, carving cubes into spheres or faceted diamonds with cleavers and knives. American bartenders were fascinated by the practice. Call it ice FOMO, but this is the reason your local cocktail bar now has its own "ice program." What the Americans didn't know was that Japanese ice is a result of necessity and convenience: The bars don't have ice machines, due to a combination of space constraints and a surplus of ice suppliers. "Bartenders have access to any ice they need at any time," says White. They choose different sizes and shapes for different purposes. A Japanese bartender might use oblong ice fingers to pack a mixing glass so "the liquid rotates and the ice remains still" when he stirs a cocktail, or he might add extra-cold ice blocks combined with smaller cubes to provide the proper amount of dilution and aeration when shaking.

This is a performance.

Once they got over the ice, American bartenders obsessed over how their Japanese counterparts moved: the precision, economy, and fluidity of motion. It's like pulling up a bar stool to watch a martial artist work through his routine deliberately — and each school is different, the product of that master's education and his personal style. Every maneuver is carefully considered. "The angle at which the bartender stirs your drink might have something to do with the way the light in the room reflects off the metal of the bar spoon," says White. "You can be sure that he has thought it through, every little aesthetic like this."

You're expected to participate.

This is perhaps the most important part of drinking in a Ginza bar, and the part we Westerners are least likely to get right. According to Angus Winchester, an international bar consultant and former "global ambassador" for Tanqueray, bartending in a Ginza bar is like dancing an Argentine tango or classical ballet. "It may look easy," he says, "but it's unbelievably difficult." And like a tango, it takes two. The guest is expected to respond to the bartender's performance by using a glossary of visual and verbal expressions — slight bows, hushed murmurs of pleasure — that are deeply ingrained Japanese customs. "This is the culture that brought us Kabuki theater, where every subtle movement has meaning," says Winchester. These bartenders are known to riff, so even if you don't know what every gesture is for, just nod appreciatively.

They don't learn this in books.

There's no manual for how any of this should be done. In fact, the only writer White has heard the bartenders discuss is Sen no Rikyu, a 16th-century philosopher who wrote poems about the Japanese tea ceremony, of its ability to create a sense of tranquility and peace in the souls of the participants. According to Rikyu, the spirit of traditional Japanese hospitality is informed by the phrase ichigo ichie, meaning "one time, one meeting" or "once in a lifetime." Because this particular moment between you and your host will never be repeated, he is spiritually obligated to honor it, to honor you, and to make your experience perfectly memorable.