THE BLOG

No Baggage Challenge for Charity Visits The Best Bar in Asia

11/18/2010 08:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is the fifth installment of my No Baggage Challenge for Charity. Read about why I am traveling to Japan for ten days with no bags here and see exactly what I have with me here. My first post on arriving in Japan can be read here and my exploration of Kyoto's Nishiki Market can be read here.

As an avowed cocktail geek, one of the most exciting things about traveling in Japan is the opportunity to visit some of Tokyo's legendary cocktail lounges. Cocktails first came to Japan in a big way following World War II and as is the case with most cultural importations, the Japanese quickly added their own take to making cocktails. Over the last sixty years a defined Japanese style of bartending evolved, with unique methods for shaking drinks, preparing ice, and serving guests. To my American eyes, the Japanese style of bartending is primarily focused on precision in practice and making sure each drink is suitable for the person who ordered it. There's something magical about it in a way that goes beyond what you get at Pre-Prohibition style cocktail bars in the United States.

Throughout my trip, I've seen bartenders at bars deploy the particular Japanese style of preparing drinks. This was surprising to the extent that in the US, while there is, broadly speaking, American style for craft cocktail bartenders, this style doesn't get transmitted through your run-of-the-mill bartenders at dives, beer halls or hotel bars. In contrast, every bartender I've seen in Japan - from a hotel lounge to small restaurant's bar to high-end lounge - has worked in the typical Japanese style. A hard shake is employed, droplets of the mixed cocktail are tasted on the bartenders wrist to confirm it is suitable, and the ingredients of the drink are displayed on the bar for a guest to enjoy. The ubiquity of the Japanese style is impressive, though not all top Japanese bartenders think this is a good thing.

I spent last night at Hidetsugu Ueno's Bar High Five, which in 2009 was named the best barin Asia and the Pacific. Mr. Ueno thinks the formal style of Japanese bartending gets in the way of bartenders actually making good drinks that are right for the person they're serving. "Recipes are meaningless," he says, emphasising that each person should have a drink that's right for them, not what is printed in a book. He says he never uses recipes himself, but relies on his sense of balance and aroma to determine how to make a drink that is right for his guest.

While the concept of bartending by rote style being bunk is somewhat radical to hear, the idea that a drink should be made specifically for the person who will drink it is not. Throughout contemporary bartending literature, both in the US and Japan, there is an expectation that a guest should be able to have the right drink for them, not the bartender or an author of a recipe. Of course, what's said in theory might not always make it out to the other side of the stick.

As if there were any doubt, the three cocktails I enjoyed with Mr. Ueno were all superb. I started the night with a Martinez, a precursor cocktail to the Martini made with Old Tom Gin (a sweeter, stronger type of gin), sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur and orange bitters. In what was my first surprise of the night, Mr. Ueno didn't know the recipe. He said that while Japan is a country of traditional cocktails, there is almost no interest in the older cocktails now popular in the US thanks to exhaustive research into 19th century cocktail manuals. As such, there is no demand for what are considered Pre-Prohibition classics like the Martinez or Ramos Gin Fizz. He looked up a version of a Martinez in one of his many cocktail books and made me an excellent drink that I thoroughly enjoyed. If a bartender can make you a cocktail he or she isn't familiar with and it can still turn out to your liking, you're almost always in the presence of someone who has mastered the ability to balance ingredients in cocktail form.

I next had a Daiquiri. This is one of my favorite cocktails and one of the simplest ones, made with only white rum, fresh lime juice and simple syrup. I find it's a great drink to order at a lot of bars as a means of finding out the style of the bartender who serves you. Recipes for this drink vary widely, some with a lot of sugar to make a sweet, tart drink, others with a heavier pour of rum to make a dry cocktail. This is the style I prefer and Mr. Ueno's Daiquiri nailed it.

My final cocktail for the night was a White Lady. Though this is not an original to Mr. Ueno, he is known in Japan for mastering it and making it a signature drink at his bar. He uses a strong pour of Beefeater Gin, along with scant pours of Cointreau, a fine orange liqueur, and fresh lemon juice. He then deploys the famed Japanes hard shake and the resulting drink is a light, refreshing, yet still brisk rendition of a White Lady.

White Lady

45 mL Beefeater Gin
12 mL Cointreau
15 mL fresh lemon juice

Combine ingredients in a cobbler shaker over ice and shake. Pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Do not double strain.

One of the unique things about Mr. Ueno, though I've seen other Japanese bartenders do the same, is that when serving a shaken drink from a three-piece cobbler shaker, he does not double strain it. Instead, he uses the built-in strainer in the shaker and lets the tiny shards of ice to sit on the surface of the drink. When he made my Daiquiri and explained his logic on this, he noted that the way he shakes produces a very cold drink (-7.1 C in this instance). Since the liquid is so cold, the flecks of ice on its surface won't melt and dilute the cocktail. Instead, when you take a sip of it, they will melt in your mouth and throat, adding a bracing burst of cold to the profile of each sip.

Going to one of the world's best cocktail bars was quite an experience. The only thing that made this even more remarkable was that I went wearing clothes that I'd been traveling in for over a week. Japan is an incredibly stylish and well dress country, with suits the norm at most bars. Going to Bar High Five, with only nine seats at the bar and very closed quarters throughout, was a test of Scottevest clothes, both stylistically and whether they resisted odor. Fortunately all was well. I wore my TEC Shirt, which is a very stylish gray button down, and my Flex Cargo Pants, which look like a regular pair of chinos, and fit it just fine. Even more importantly, my method of washing what I wear each night (at least the tshirt, socks, and underwear, then sporadically pants and top shirt) has kept the clothes completely free of odor. Add in that I'm showering twice a day and I'm free and clear. This was definitely the biggest test of my clothes, beyond the daily travel with my girlfriend and parents, and the Scottevest gear passed with flying colors.

Today is my last full day in Tokyo - I fly back to the US tomorrow morning, marvelously landing two hours before I take off. The flight will be another opportunity for me to go through security with no baggage, as well as come back through customs. I had zero problems leaving the US and coming to Japan with no baggage and expect the same for my return.

Disclosure: My No Baggage Challenge for Charity trip is being done in collaboration with Scottevest. I received some of the clothing I am using, including the Carry-On Coat, Tropical Jacket, TEC Shirt, Travel Boxers and Flex Cargo Pants for free. I am also using other Scottevest clothes that I've purchased myself: Q-Zip, Performance T-Shirts, and Travel Pants. Scottevest is making a $1500 donation to Students for a Free Tibet in honor of my trip and will raise their donation to $5000 if videos I shoot on this trip reach 10,000 views. I am covering all other trip costs.

If you would like to make a donation in support of Students for a Free Tibet, please click here.