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How Japanese Are Japanese Bar Tools?

The tools we associate with Japanese bartending have come to symbolize the style’s dedication to precision. But they are, by and large, of Western origin. Chloe Frechette on what, if anything, makes these tools "Japanese."

Japanese Style Bar Tools

A footed mixing glass, gripped delicately at the base; a cobbler shaker, rocked rhythmically back and forth; a tightly spiraled mixing spoon, silently stirring a drink. The tools we associate with Japanese bartending have come to symbolize the style’s dedication to precision and quality. But, with the exception of the enigmatic trident barspoon, the design of Japanese-style bar tools are, by and large, of Western origin.

In fact, the spiraled bar spoon phased out the toddy stick after the commercialization of ice in the U.S. in the 1830s, around the same time that ice picks of various shapes and sizes became ubiquitous back-bar staples across the country. In 1884, Edward Huack of Brooklyn patented the three-piece cobbler shaker; half a decade later, Cornelius Dungan of Chicago filed a patent for a double-sided conical jigger—a design often referred to today as “Japanese-style.”

So how did this association come to be?

Cocktails and American barware arrived in Japan in the late-19th century, having migrated to the island as part of the bounty brought back by Emperor Meiji’s ambassadors, who were sent to acquire the best of Western culture. From that point on, Japanese bartenders acted as custodians of cocktail culture—unwittingly charged with keeping the torch lit during the dark period of Prohibition.

But they did more than merely preserve. While the tools changed very little—with the exception of the mixing glass, which, having never developed a singular style in the U.S., took on an ergonomic form equipped with a spout for easy pouring—the trade was far from stagnant. Nurtured on Japanese soil, American barware was imbued with the tenets of a decidedly Japanese approach to cocktails.

“Japanese bartending is very much from Japanese culture,” explains Gen Yamamoto, proprietor of his eponymous Tokyo bar. “It is like the tea ceremony.” A process centered on perfecting seemingly mundane tasks, mastering the tea ceremony requires great precision, exemplifying the pursuit of perfection that underlies so much of Japanese culture. The tools, meanwhile, acquired a meaning that went beyond mere utilitarian function.

“Individual techniques and reverence for tools are paramount,” explains Kayoko Akabori, co-founder of Umami Mart, importer of Japanese barware.

When these tools made their way back to the U.S. in the early 2000s, largely in the suitcases of Greg Boehm, co-founder of Cocktail Kingdom, and other likeminded cocktail enthusiasts, they offered a lens through which to recover a lost American profession. Bartending in the states had deteriorated to an illegal occupation in the 1920s, elevated only slightly in the proceeding decades to “something that you just did to help pay your bills,” explains Boehm. All the while, it remained a serious profession in Japan, which, he adds, “was very much an enviable position to American bartenders.”

Though a slight misnomer, Boehm contends that the label “Japanese-style”—for which he is partly responsible—is not wholly inaccurate. “Yes, it started here,” he explains, “but it’s been used in Japan for more years.” Initially a descriptor used to differentiate the elongated jigger from the squatter version (which was, a “bastardization” of the 1950s, according to Boehm), the label simply stuck. And, for American bartenders, represented the qualities long forgotten in American bartending: quality, precision and professionalism.

But while many American bars have adopted Japanese-style barware for these reasons—the elongated jiggers, for example, offer greater accuracy and consistency—there are elements of Japanese bartending that cannot be translated through simple use of the tools.

“In a Japanese bar… the idea is to put all of your focus into making the best drink possible,” says Ben Rojo of Angel’s Share. The notion of stirring more than one drink at a time—a common sight at American bars—is anathema to this approach. “If you’re splitting your attention between four different mixing glasses… its sort of contrary to the aesthetic.” 

It is perhaps the ubiquity of the cobbler shaker at Japanese bars that best illustrates this dedication to technique over efficiency.  “Their disadvantages are numerous, and come largely at the expense of speed,” explains Rojo of the cobbler shaker. “They require the attention of two hands, they are more difficult to clean, they pour more slowly and their molded seals serve poorly for dry-shaking at room temperature.”

By contrast, two-piece shakers—the standard at many American bars—offer the ease of one-handed shaking (enabling a drink to be shaken in each hand simultaneously), easy stackability, cleaning and, according to Rojo, “their generous volume-to-weight and flat ends allow for easy breakage of ice,” which translates to rapid chilling and dilution of drinks—all priorities at high-volume bars.

But it’s this breakage, he explains, that the cobbler shaker deliberately avoids: “The absence of sharply angled edges… allows for the ice in a cobbler shaker to be more deftly manipulated, shaken more vigorously and for a longer period of time while controlling breakage and thus managing dilution.” In other words, he says, “Japanese-style bartenders sacrifice time and convenience with this choice of equipment for the sake of presenting a more thoroughly mixed and chilled shaken drink.”

While there are un-translatable elements of Japanese-style bartending, the availability of the tools themselves has fostered a transnational dialogue between the two bastions of cocktail culture. While Cocktail Kingdom led the charge with making Japanese-style barware available in the U.S., Umami Mart has since partnered with Japanese manufacturer Yukiwa to bring items to Japan that had never existed there before, like julep strainers and jiggers with interior lines. It’s an exchange that elevates bartending in both nations while maintaining the bottom line for barware—which is, in Gen Yamamoto’s words, “not design from design” but rather, “design from use.”

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