It was sometime in 1987 when the telex arrived at Bar Sukatto in Utsunomiya, Japan, with some bad news from Rome: “No aquavit or sloe gin. Please revise recipe.”
Akira Tajima was preparing to fly to Italy for the finals of the International Bartenders Association contest, where he planned to present his Little Cat cocktail made with aquavit, sloe gin, sambuca, grenadine, lime and tonic water.
“I had to come up with a new version that day,” recalls Tajima, who decided that grappa might work in place of aquavit, and cherry brandy could stand in for sloe gin. It wasn’t quite the recipe he had practiced and fretted over, but it won.
It was a triumph for Japan and a moment of pride for Utsunomiya, a city the size of Sacramento 80 miles north of Tokyo, the established epicenter of Japanese cocktail culture. What nobody knew at the time was that it was the first swell in a deluge of success that would turn the city, better known as the gyoza capital of Japan, into a serious cocktail destination.
Later that year, at the finals of the Nippon Bartenders Association contest, the judges crowned Utsunomiya’s Yuzo Yamanoi their champion. Astonishingly, the runner-up was Yamanoi’s mentor, Nobuyuki Ogawa, who had trained him when they worked in sibling bars, both called Paipu no Kemuri. Then things really got rolling. Ogawa entered again the following year, and won; their colleague Yuichi Hoshi took the title a year later; and Paipu no Kemuri alumnus Hisashi Katagiri made it a four-year sweep in 1990.
“The first year people thought it was a fluke,” says Yamanoi. “The second year, it was: Hmmm? The third year: ‘Ah, this is nonsense.’ After four it was, ‘OK, you lot do your thing.’”
That a small city nestled in the shadow of Tokyo could so consistently dominate the nation’s top bartending prize was a seismic shock, akin to the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 that propelled Napa wines to global acclaim. What made it all the more extraordinary was that Utsunomiya hardly had a cocktail culture to speak of at the time.
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“It was a bottle-service city,” says Ogawa, now 75 and still working in the same 26-seat bar he joined 49 years ago. Customers purchased cheap Nikka or Suntory blends by the bottle and stored them at the bar to drink on future visits. “They usually ordered it twice-up,” he says, using the Japanese term for half whisky, half water.
So why practice a craft your customers aren’t interested in? “Service is service. Study is study. Training is training,” says Ogawa. “And, I wanted to be a champion.”
In 1994, Utsunomiya’s Mari Okabe, formerly of Paipu no Kemuri, became the first woman to lift the trophy, and four years later, Masamitsu Nagaoka brought it back to the city. “We were the people to beat,” says Tajima, who by then had been recruited to open a bar in Ginza, the epicenter of Tokyo’s cocktail scene. Utsunomiya was suddenly a bartending talent pool. Hoshi was hired to open a Ginza bar, too, and has gone on to build a seven-bar empire there. “But it was only bartenders and industry insiders who knew about us in the ’90s,” says Ogawa. “Most people associated the city with gyoza or jazz.”
For reasons unclear, Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs maintains a ranking of cities by dumpling consumption per capita; Utsunomiya is always first or second. The city’s jazz scene, meanwhile, was galvanized by native son Sadao Watanabe, whose stardom inspired locals to take up music and tourists to visit. After the slew of cocktail contest wins, city officials realized their bartenders had similar potential. In 1999 they helped establish the Utsunomiya Cocktail Club, with a mission to attract cocktail lovers to the city.
The club is responsible for printing bar maps, staging cocktail festivals in the town square, and, in the past, producing ready-to-drink bottled cocktails for drinking at home. But just as importantly, the club has cemented a camaraderie among the city’s bartenders.
“In Utsunomiya, when a young bartender wants to enter a contest, it’s not just their own master who teaches them; the masters of other bars do, too. It’s fine to ask anyone for help before or after service,” says Hiroshi Takeuchi, who came to Utsunomiya 26 years ago to be an engineer but switched careers after becoming captivated by the local bar culture. He now runs after-hours spot Hiro:Z and is chairman of the cocktail club.
“That a small city nestled in the shadow of Tokyo could so consistently dominate the nation’s top bartending prize was a seismic shock, akin to the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 that propelled Napa wines to global acclaim. ”
“The scene is so strong because everyone built it together,” says Takahiro Soeda, chief bartender of Bar Chamonix, arguably the most upmarket bar in the city. His Macallan collection begins with a 1936 vintage and his wine cellar is stocked with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, but the real attractions are his cocktails made with homegrown fruit, herbs and vegetables. His Gin Fizz, for instance, is made with freshly muddled myoga (Japanese ginger), and his Gin & Tonic comes with a kick of sansho pepper.
Soeda was born just two years before the start of the famous winning streak and grew up well-versed in his city’s bar culture. “I was into whisky and cocktails since, well, it’s probably not good to specify that,” he says. As soon as he reached legal drinking age, he asked 1998 champion Nagaoka for a bartending job at Chamonix, where he has remained for the past 18 years.
Soeda says the level of technical mastery in Utsunomiya is at least as high as in Ginza, and Tokyo-based bartenders frequently visit for research or sheer enjoyment. But the cocktail experience in Utsunomiya comes without the buttoned-up formality that characterizes elite bars in the capital.
“People make the effort to come here, so you have to make it fun enough to come back for,” says Takeuchi. “Utsunomiya style is friendly, casual, chatty.” Or, as Yamanoi puts it, “We’re que será será.”
The city is going through a dry patch in terms of trophies. The Nippon Bartenders Association’s top prize now goes with predictable regularity to Ginza, and the last time anyone from Utsunomiya won a cocktail contest was in 2016, when Kazuhito Otsuka of Bar Cave finished first in a contest organized by Padrón cigars with a clever dessert drink that begins with torching coffee beans over the strainer of a cobbler shaker.
Even without recent awards, Utsunomiya’s bar scene is thriving. The day-trippers who come for gyoza now know to grab a cocktail before heading home, and cocktails are part of the daily routine for many locals in a city so compact that a bit of barhopping on the way home is easy.
Hirofumi Ogawa, who works alongside father Nobuyuki in the bar now known as Musshu Ogawa Paipu no Kemuri, says he isn’t interested in trying to win trophies. “I just focus on today and serving each customer one by one,” he says. It’s a sentiment echoed by Tajima, the city’s first world champion, who is back from Ginza and running a bar called As Time Goes By. “Trophies aren’t the goal,” he says. “They’re the start.”