Cheers to good libations!

While the origins of bar culture may be traced back to the ancient Greek tavernas for the working classes — kapeleia, it was the golden age of cocktails in America that started in the latter half of the 19th century till the Prohibition (1920) that defined it for the modern times.
Last Updated : 30 June 2024, 03:45 IST

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For their love of precision, the Japanese might actually be faulted for taking fun out of everything. Yet, it is that same affection for perfection and ceremony that the Japanese art of mixology is raising the bar across the globe. It is being hailed as ‘the theatre of Japanese bartending techniques’.

While the origins of bar culture may be traced back to the ancient Greek tavernas for the working classes — kapeleia, it was the golden age of cocktails in America that started in the latter half of the 19th century till the Prohibition (1920) that defined it for the modern times.

The actual definition came well before that, when on May 13, 1806, Harry Croswell, the editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository, a New York State tabloid, defined a cocktail as ‘a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters…’

When America was witnessing the pause to its quality cocktail era, Japan was enjoying its initiation into a party era of cocktail indulgence. A world war, thereafter, it wasn’t again until the 1970s that the country’s economy strengthened and Japan started to develop its distinct style. Borrowing from the finesse of their traditional ceremonies, style from martial arts, and original American influences, the Japanese bartenders over the years perfected the art of making and serving cocktails. And, in the next century, they appeared as the superstars of the international bar scene.

In 2008, Bon Appetit magazine declared Tokyo as the cocktail capital of the world, and connoisseurs from across the world were paying to witness the likes of Kazuo Uyeda demonstrate the Japanese hard shake, using a three-piece cobbler shaker. Their attention to detail being subtle and individualistic. Shingo Gokan, hailed as the world’s most successful bar owner by ‘The World’s 50 Best Bars’ and a mixologist of repute, explains. “I think Japan has one of the oldest bar cultures in Asia. There is more than 100 years of history,” Gokan says as he gets ready to take over the bar with Suntory spirits at The Leela Palace in the capital. “Thanks to our traditional activities and martial arts, we care about each movement. That is why we are good at polishing, and elevating simple things to extra expert level.”

Indian mixologist and founder of Sidecar — ranked 26 in the World’s Best 50 Bars list of 2022, Yangdup Lama, agrees. “From a creative and talent point of view, yes, I think the Japanese way of bartending is purely an art form. It is in their culture that a lot of things they do seem to be an art form. Bartending is just one of them,” he says.

A reason perhaps that while Milan’s 1930, which is at 42 in the 2023 World’s Best 50 Bars list, may be an enigma in itself, its head bartender, Daniele Trombelli, finds no mystery in where the world’s next best cocktail could be from. “It will be coming from Asia, especially Japan,” the Italian says after showcasing some 1930 specialities with India’s Pistola Joven and Reposado — ‘Pimped Iberic Mead’, and India-inspired ‘Red Chakra’, at Trident’s alfresco bar, Lyrah. Hence, as Lama shares, while bartenders across the world are impressed enough to embrace some Japanese ways into their trade, a complete integration might not be on the cards. “The reason is we operate at a slightly bigger format,” he points out. Gokan puts it in perspective. “We don’t really have high-volume bars. That is why we have time to focus on one drink and make that one drink a something different experience altogether with focusing on every detail, ice, equipment, product, and technique,” he says.

Therefore, Darren Lim from Taiwan’s Vender, a new entry in Asia’s 50 Best Bars at 41, likes to tread somewhere between Japan and Europe. “I would define my style of bartending as a mix of Japanese and European — a combination of precision and controlled flair. It is not excessive like in America,” he says before helming a Loya Qissa evening at Taj Palace with Vender signature concoctions like ‘Kaya Toast’, ‘Vender Sling’, ‘Bandung’ and more.

Yet, they all agree that it is undoubtedly Asia’s turn to define the bar and cocktail culture of the world. For, if Lama feels that the world’s next best cocktail might as well come from India, the rest are equally impressed with the current Indian and Asian ingredient-driven mixology.

“The experiments happening in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, India, definitely make Asia the most happening bar culture right now. The bartenders are using so many unique indigenous ingredients here,” says Lim, with a special mention for galangal which caught his fancy on this trip to India. Trombelli already knew about the concept of chakras and a lot more about India and was surprised by Indian bars’ mixology prowess. On his first visit here, he perhaps “didn’t know what to expect. In Milan, we already use a lot of Indian spices. I was so surprised at the way the bars here are using spices. The level is very good,” he says, adding that while lamb rogan josh tested his spice tolerance, he loves everything Indian and spicy.

“The Indian bar culture is quite new. It is where China’s was 5-10 years ago,” says Gokan, taking all in attendance around the world in four drinks with his ‘Okinawa’, ‘NYC’, ‘Toki-O’ cocktails from his respective bars, and a special one for ‘Delhi’ with seasonal fruits and spices. He finds the bar culture of any country directly proportional to the economy and so, he is sure that “India is going to become one of the most important markets in the world soon”.

“I think post 2015-16, the west has been looking at Asia for good bars, and inspiration,” Lama reaffirms. “Asia has a strong history, culture, and heritage, and with its ancient processes, be it cooking, preserving, or extracting flavours, that are becoming popular, in due course of time, Asia will definitely be contributing in a bigger way from a flavour point of view.” Well, cheers to that!

Published 30 June 2024, 03:45 IST

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