Hubert Burda Media

Creating a Stir: Japanese Cocktail King Hidetsugu Ueno

Lauded Tokyo-based drinks-meister serves up his views on global cocktail trends and Japanese whisky.

Tokyo’s hottest name in cocktail-making projects confidence muddled with a hint of humbleness as Hong Kong media buzz around him to get their lighting, his pose behind the counter, and the drink paraphernalia props to their liking. While Prestige Hong Kong wait our turn for an interview with Hidetsugu Ueno at Hong Kong’s Bar De Luxe – a collaboration that sees him concoct the drinks list – we are served by Yuriko Naganuma, a protégé he selected from his acclaimed Bar High Five that is the talk of Tokyo and beyond. Naganuma’s own invention for Hong Kong – Ceremony – draws on the Ueno repertoire she has honed, to serve up here as head bartender. Its robust Japanese whisky, green tea liqueur and green tea essence, cooled by a huge dense sphere of ice is uncomplicated and well balanced. After a few sips, the dapper Ueno was available to answer a few questions.

How different is the experience in Hong Kong’s Bar De Luxe to that of Bar High Five?

The customers in High Five are very international – there are often people in from Europe, the US and from Hong Kong. I never adjust cocktails to the country I’m making in.  As long as a cocktail has balance I’ll serve it.

How do you define “balance” in a cocktail? 

It depends on what kind of ingredients you put in, of course, but even a super-creamy cocktail or a very forward “boozy” drink must have balance. Mixing sweet and sour are an obvious way. But I don’t drink alcohol – so I assess it on what I understand it will be like through practice. I’ll have a small drink sometimes but really not often.  

What do you think are trends in cocktails for 2017?

I don’t really follow trends myself but I can see the tiki [rum-based] trend of the past few years is going to explode even more in the next few years. Actually, Japan has very conservative cocktail culture – there are some molecular mixologists, but the taste is pretty classic, the same as it was 50 years ago. And I think it will be the same 50 years later – even if a few tiki bars come.

Do you think Japanese whisky is worth its premium pricing, when compared to Scotch whisky?

Japanese whisky itself – for a 12-year one – is more expensive to make, if you look at the [labour] cost per person, the rent and the running costs. But the prices nowadays are a bit too much. It’s all about the demand and supply. Fifteen years ago perception of Japanese whisky was very low, nobody cared about it but three or four years ago the Yamazaki sherry cask started scoring very highly and other whiskies also started getting lots of interest. Twelve years ago they didn’t make much of it, so the stocks are low. Nikka whisky has stopped its vintage single malt, it’s now only doing non-vintage whisky. Suntory releases its whisky very slowly, it controls the stock – I can only buy one [Suntory–produced] Yamazaki 12-year-old whisky per month. 

Is there a definable Japanese sensibility about your cocktail making? 

In Japan, they don’t want to see local ingredients but our shaker and mixing glass and stirrer are a bit different [than Western ones], and we use the preferred Japanese ice [oversize spheres or cubes]. I just want to give them a great experience around classic cocktails.

Is there anything in the world of food and drink – ingredients or methods – right now that you enjoy?

I don’t like the way food pairing is usually done. It’s all focused on the food and the drink comes after this. In future, bar tenders should ask chefs to come to their bars and get inspired by the cocktail and drinks [then] create their [best-paired] dishes. In my bar there is very little food and it is separate from the drink.

Is there anything you don’t like in the world of food and drink at the moment?

Yes, the word “craft” is used too much. It’s used to suggest that everything that’s made in small quantities is good and things made on a large scale are no good. This is not true. For example, Beefeater Gin is made in large volumes but its master distiller Desmond Payne is a very skilled spirit maker and the product is very good.