Hidetsugu Ueno on the Art (Not the Science!) of Ice


Master bartender Hidetsugu Ueno traveled all the way from Tokyo to attend Eben Freeman’s Cocktail All-Stars events this week. Known for his hard shake, artful ice-carving skills, and the pinpoint precision with which he mixes drinks at his Tokyo cocktail den, Bar High Five, Uneo is something of a mythical figure in the mixology world, both in his native Japan and in quaffing hubs around the world.

On Tuesday night, at Madame Geneva, which is hidden in the nether regions of Double Crown, he demonstrated for the bartenders in attendance how to carve the perfect chunk of ice for a rocks glass. Fork in the Road caught up with the Japanese cocktail wizard to ask just what is the big deal with frozen water anyway.

What is the secret to perfect ice?

Clarity is most important. And cut. Like a diamond. You want many faces. And all the [faces] should reflect light. That’s it. It’s just eye candy.

What the science behind it? American bartenders are always talking about the science of mixology.

Nothing! The ice that I use takes at least three days to be processed. I say what is more important is what it looks like.

Where is the best ice from? Harvested from a natural habitat or man-made?

We have a really huge ice factory near Tokyo and we get delivered a huge block of ice from the factory every single day. Then, we cut it into smaller pieces. The process is many different stages of filtering. You want pure water.

The majority of the land in Japan is mountains surrounded by lots of rivers, so clean water is pretty much everywhere. In addition to that, we have a long-standing [fishing] culture. So, making great ice was already there. Japanese bartenders are using this background.

What can Americans learn from the Japanese on the subject?

For us, it’s really easy to get a block of ice. But it’s difficult to get a big block of ice in this country. I also don’t know about the quality of the water. So, I don’t know what Americans can learn. It’s a different situation; different techniques should be used.

What is the main difference between U.S. and Japanese bartending styles?

Everything is totally different except we both use alcohol. (Laughs.) Bar tools, the way of thinking, the philosophy, the way of shaking and stirring… everything. We have different kinds of bar tools, a different kind of ice, so it should be a different [bartending] technique.

Bartenders here are taking so much from the Japanese style. Is there anything you have acquired from us?

Ahhhhh…tough question. I think the U.S. bartenders are always looking for something new, but we are always looking for a better way for making classic cocktails. It was quite interesting to see double-shake and double-stir, but I’m sure that I’m not a big fan of those techniques. To exchange the knowledge is worth to do. But right now, I need to observe and listen to them more.

What is the best drink you have had in New York so far?

First, I’m not drinker. I’m so weak for alcohol. I don’t usually drink in daily life, I drink only when my friends visit my place or when I go overseas. And it’s not still enough time to speak about it. I haven’t gone to enough places and had enough drinks. The drinks I had in the events cannot be counted, which means I’ve only gone to Pegu Club in real business hours. Of course, their drinks were good and beautiful, especially the “Black Tea Martini” (the popular Ear Grey MarTEAni, which caused the whole egg white scandal). Pretty much complex and well balanced.

How often do you come to the U.S.?

I haven’t come to the U.S. for a long time. I was in Washington State when I was a university student for an exchange program. That was 20 years ago.

So, you’re one of the old timers, then? (Like Dale DeGroff and Gary Regan, who mixed Old Fashioneds at PDT on Wednesday.)

I am an old timer. But I’m new, too.

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