If you're fed up with elaborate mixology, and have downed too many drinks topped with unidentifiable foams or freeze-dried herbs, a trip to Tokyo should put you right. In the rest of the drinking world, cocktailmaking may have morphed into a wacky science, but in the Japanese capital, a small coterie of barmen focuses on making the classics better than anyone else does. In doing so, they safeguard a cocktail culture first imported by Americans in the 19th century. "This is a Western job, but it's Japanese work," explains Hidetsugu Ueno, bartender and owner of Bar High Five, tel: (81-3) 3571 5815, while serving me his feted White Lady (gin, Cointreau and lemon juice).
Nicholas Coldicott, a contributor to Whisky Magazine Japan, compares the likes of Ueno to sushi chefs, who undergo long apprenticeships before being regarded as experts. "They see themselves as masters of the bar," he explains. Devotion to the craft can mean anything from devising flawless methods for employing ice (the now popular ice ball, which melts more slowly than ice cubes and thus keeps drinks colder and less diluted for longer, is a Japanese invention) to finding the best way to shake, not stir. "Japan's bars always try to stick to the standard," says Kazuo Uyeda, owner of Tender Bar, tel: (81-3) 3571 8343. Uyeda is renowned for his "hard shake," which he devised to improve a cocktail's temperature and texture. "When you taste it, you'll feel ice shards on your tongue," Coldicott says as a waiter in a white tuxedo floats over with Uyeda's signature gimlet. The mix of gin and lime juice is soft, not sharp, the chill deep and sustained.
There's an artisanal quality, too, to the work of Hisashi Kishi, whom Coldicott hails as "the best bartender in Japan." Like so many excellent Tokyo establishments, Kishi's Star Bar, tel: (81-3) 3535 8005, is no bigger than a subway carriage. We order two of his famous Sidecars and watch as he froths the ingredients. "It gives a better aroma," Kishi explains, before mixing them up with one of his five distinct shaking patterns. The result: an unforgettable union of cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice, and a sense that one is savoring something that has become, in spite of its foreign origins, beautifully and ineffably Japanese.
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