Hidetsugu Ueno (many call him Ueno-san) is one of the most recognizable figures of international bartending. A master ice-carver and a genial host with a Elvis hairdo, he is one of the few Japanese bartenders comfortable speaking in English. This has made him a much sought after speaker for barshows and judge at global competitions. Last June, he was back in Cuba for the second time as a member of the jury at the 2016 Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix.
Our conversation took place a few minutes before the final. Ueno was relaxed but knew hard work awaited – he told us how difficult it had been at the 2012 Grand Prix. Still, he was looking forward to it: “I like judging global competitions. Bartenders come and bring their own country’s touch, which I don’t really know much about. So it’s very interesting seeing them tell me about their culture and how they mixed it with Cuban culture”. A big part of Ueno-san’s work is precisely explaining Japanese bartending culture to foreigners. Long completely ignored, it’s been very trendy over the last decade with techniques such as the hard-shake and even philosophies cropping up all over the West. Is the interest mutual? “Social networks have made the bartending scene borderless. So in Japan, it’s like the ‘black ships’ that opened the country in the 19th century have come back! Some bars introduced European style and things like molecular mixology, and I think that’s good for local customers, but we’re still pretty much old-school, conservative and focused on the classics”.
Ueno runs High-Five Bar (recently voted 23rd best bar in the world) in Ginza, an upscale Tokyo neighbourhood; he opened after years working at prestigious Star Bar. He’s been shaking drinks for a quarter of century now, not a rare feat in Japan – “it’s a lifetime occupation here, so as long as my body is healthy, I will keep on. In fact, I say I’m only 25 years-old, as a bartender, because many Japanese bartenders are much older”. And don’t expect ‘European-style’ bartending at High-Five: “I get a lot of international visitors and they come to my bar because they want classics, Japanese-style”.
It’s a bit of a Catch-22 situation, really, since his international prominence make local players expect the opposite: “People in Japan expect me to know a lot of things about what’s going on overseas because I travel a lot, but I really don’t have time to research local scenes. I’m invited abroad to talk about what I know”.
Unsurprisingly then, Ueno didn’t really notice any changes in Cuba since 2012. But are Cuban cocktails popular in Japan? “We know most of the classics, and by classics I mean the ones who made it to classic cocktail books, so there are a lot of recipes we don’t know about. What’s interesting is that in Cuba, the Daiquiri is frozen, but in Japan it’s exclusively a shaken drink. Bartenders follow the classic recipe, even though some use a bit of grenadine. Personally, I make one change. The sweetener I use in my Daiquiri is local brown sugar syrup because it brings more rum flavours to the fore”. Hidetsugu Ueno might be busier explaining Japan to westerners than exploring the history of Cuban cocktails, but his Daiquiri looks like a serious contender for Perfect Daiquiri, Japanese-style…