There has always been a great alliance between alcohol and literature. Kingsley Amis, Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and countless other writers have well-earned hell-raiser reputations for enjoying a tipple or two. On my way to Ginza’s legendary cocktail bar, Bar Tender, I was reminded of one of Ogden Nash’s efforts:
There is something about a Martini,
A tingle remarkably pleasant;
A yellow, a mellow Martini;
I wish I had one at present.
But to tell you the truth Bar Tender is more heavyweight than Nash ever was. It’s more of a Don Draper, Manhattan in the 50s/60s type of bar. It’s more Frank O’Hara than Ogden Nash. The bar encapsulates that part of the city and its old-school, affluent atmosphere and the periphery of things. O’Hara wrote in his 1956 poem “A Step Away from Them”:
so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches.
There’s something about this that captures, perfectly, the bustle and mood of Ginza as I tried to find this hidden away gem. So hidden away in fact, that it feels like it doesn’t want to be found at all.
Kazuo Ueda’s name is mentioned in hushed tones in Tokyo’s cocktail scene. The godfather of Tokyo’s bar and cocktail scene he is celebrated as the inventor of the “hard shake” - a method of shaking liquor, which according to former Japan Times drinks writer Nicholas Coldicott, “was the product of gourmet perfectionism. Its inventor says it helps blend stubborn ingredients, such as cream or egg whites, aerates the drink by whipping tiny bubbles into it, and cools it by dramatically increasing the surface area of the ice.”
Ueda is a man of very few words, a man who likes his drinks to do the talking. He is also, famously, a teetotaler; only sipping in order to check the taste and quality of his creations. Ueda however, isn’t a mixologist. He likes to trade on his reputation for perfecting the classics. On the night we visited we tried some cocktail bar classics such as the “Harvard Cooler”, “Gimlet” and “Gin Martini” which seemed just right for a balmy Tokyo summer’s night. They were made to such clinical perfection that my eightframe accomplices were silent in appreciation for much of the evening.
The bar, which is dimly lit in muted hues, is compact, sitting a few groups at oak tables and stools along the length of the bar. An unofficial dress code is in place with gents required to wear a necktie and at the very least a smart/casual evening look. The staff, clad in cream evening jackets and black bowties, are polite, professional and the service is impeccable if not ever so slightly stiff.
We also experimented with some of Ueda’s own acclaimed inventions such as “Pure Love” made with gin, framboise, lime juice and ginger ale and a tiny showstopper named “Hanatsubaki” which translates as “Camellia” in Japanese. It’s a tiny, deep red drink packed with flavor and a strong punch.
Ueda was kind enough to show us his book of cocktails, “Cocktail Techniques”, and chat a little about his work. He’s a quiet man with an absolute passion for his trade. His aim, like most artisans, is perfection. After a few cocktails each and amidst the soft glow of cigarette smoke and musical chat of fellow drinkers we made our way onto the neon streets of Ginza and into the night. Perhaps American poet and legendary inebriate Charles Bukowski summed up the experience best in his poem “cornered”.
lighting new cigarettes
it has been a beautiful
Bar Tender: 5F, 6-5-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku;  3571-8349
- Written by
- Paul McInnes
- Austin Rea