The Japanese cocktail scene has been fascinating European and American bartenders for the last 15 years. When the first Western explorers came back, they told odd tales of immaculately suited bartenders who had developed their own shaking technique, worked with bespoke ice and bar tools and had elaborate theories on the colour schemes of their drinks.
Although there were cocktails in Japan before, it’s only with the end of World War II that the mixed drinks craze spread. As is often the case in Japan, a very intricate and obsessive subculture was built on the imported foreign tradition. Recently, gurus such as Hidetsugu Ueno travelled west to teach bartenders about it. One might say that if you don’t know what the hard shake is, you still have a long way to go before you can call yourself an expert mixologist…
The reverse hasn’t been true: current European and American cocktail culture doesn’t really seem to have made a similar impact. This is partly why our friend Soran Nomura is so interesting. You see, Soran is a Japanese bartender but he didn’t train in Japan. He found out about cocktails a little over a decade ago, as a student in London. It’s the usual deal: you work bars to make some extra cash and get caught up in the mystique of glimmering shakers. After a time at a lounge bar, having met a few cocktail bartenders, Soran got gigs at Red & Green, the pioneering tequila bar launched by Dre Masso and Henry Besant, and All Star Lanes, an American diner with bowling alley. But it’s at the multi-awarded Hawksmoors, where he ended up head bartender that Soran really made a name for himself.
When his visa was up, Soran headed back to Japan. Professionally, it was a different culture… “In London, of course, I learned the European style. Going back to Tokyo, I got to see so many Japanese bartenders that I’m kind in between both worlds. Free-pouring or jiggering, using a pourer or not, working with three-pieces shakers instead of two-pieces… I pick up whatever I like, but it was hard to get used to it…”, he told us. The transition was maybe made easier by working at Fuglen, a Norwegian place. The original Fuglen opened in Oslo in 1963. Today, it’s a café and a vintage Scandinavian design shop and at night it turns into a cocktail bar. The same logic applies to its Tokyo sister, launched 5 years ago – the logic behind the move, apart from a shared obsession with details, is that Scandinavian designers of the 50’s and 60’s found inspiration in Japan’s traditional arts and crafts.
While a lot of bartenders are not very interested in what goes on abroad, Soran’s arrival caught the attention of the younger generation. “They were very eager to find out about London or New York. I tell them that they should go – there are so many ways to travel now: brand trip, guest bartending, or hotel jobs… And the good thing is that we don’t have to go too far anymore. Singapore, for example, is very close and has such an amazing bar scene. Asia is growing so fast”. This new mind-set has interesting results: more and more Japanese bartenders are entering international competitions and doing very well indeed.
Another peculiar characteristic of Japan is that bartending is seen as a career in its own right. You start as a trainee and you retire a bartender. While this offers some stability, this may seem a conservative system for anyone with knowledge of how the global drinks industry works. And Soran is once again showing his difference: he has taken a part time position as a Japanese brand ambassador for a Finnish craft distiller. “There’s no ambassador category in Japan, it’s all about salesmen. Maybe I can show the way for young, Japanese bartender. I want to let them know that a bartender can be anything. There are so many opportunities in this industry!” Japan has a long history of picking up trends from abroad, digesting them and making its own, sometimes-superior version. Where they’ll take the cocktail next is going to be interesting, and we’re pretty sure Soran will be around to tell us.