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The Myth of the Japanese Hard Shake

August 29, 2019

Story: Chloe Frechette

photo: Eric Medsker

What many assume to be the de facto Japanese style has been misunderstood for nearly a decade.

“Nobody can do the hard shake but me,” declared Japanese bartender Kazuo Uyeda in a 2010 visit to New York, during a seminar organized by Cocktail Kingdom on the Japanese way of bartending. The statement roiled the audience, seemingly undermining their earnest interest in replicating the singular technique—an intricate three-point motion executed with machine-like precision—thought to yield better aeration, temperature and texture in cocktails. But, despite the countless YouTube videos documenting bartenders across the globe showing off their hard shake, Uyeda was, it turns out, right.

It wasn’t arrogance that Uyeda’s statement revealed, however, so much as a fundamental misunderstanding of what the hard shake really is. Based on Uyeda’s belief that his particular approach results in “the best possible cocktail for my guests,” the hard shake came to be viewed as representative of Japanese bartending as a whole, itself a growing object of fascination for a maturing American bar culture in the late aughts. Before long, the hard shake became synonymous with the broader notion of Japanese bartending.

“There’s a common misconception that shaking a Japanese three-piece cobbler shaker is always the hard shake,” explains bartender Frank Cisneros, noting that the prevalence of the more compact cobbler shaker in Japan, a tool typically passed over in the U.S. in favor of two-piece shakers, has contributed to this conflation of terms. Bartender Julia Momose of Chicago’s Kumiko echoes this sentiment. “Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the cobbler shaker is synonymous with Japanese bartending.”

As so often happens in the ongoing bar world cultural exchange between East and West, something was lost in translation when the hard shake touched down on this side of the Pacific. “Japanese bartenders don’t really use the words ‘hard shake’ in general,” explains Shingo Gokan, owner of Tokyo’s SG Club. “Each bartender has a different shaking technique.” Attempting to replicate the hard shake, a method developed by Uyeda in response to the particular tools and ice at his disposal, is an understandable inclination, but it also misses the point. The hard shake—and every shake—is inherently personal.

According to Greg Boehm, the Cocktail Kingdom proprietor responsible for organizing Uyeda’s visit to the U.S. nine years ago, this is precisely what Uyeda intended with his contentious remark. “What he meant wasn’t that nobody’s good at the hard shake,” explains Boehm. “He’s like, ‘My arms are a certain length, I hold the shaker a certain way—nobody can exactly emulate my shake because nobody is physically the same as me.’” In other words, Boehm says, “It’s personal.” Momose, who trains her staff to use cobbler shakers and to aim for points and whip their wrists when shaking, shares a similar understanding of the hard shake. “Each person has a different build, whether tall or short, large hands or small hands, muscular or willowy, [so] inherently each person’s shake will be, and should be, different from another’s,” she says.

Or, in Uyeda’s own words: “Even if a cocktail is made exactly according to the recipe, the final product will differ in flavor and color from bartender to bartender.” Try as you might, Uyeda’s hard shake will never be yours. But, neither will yours belong to him.

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