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A Japanese Ice Master

story and photos by Liza B. Zimmerman

I met Hidetsugo Ueno, known simply as Ueno San by his admirers, when we were on a rum junket in Trinidad several years ago. He had been invited by the Angostura folks to do a fast-paced ice-carving demonstration. Unfortunately it was well over 90 degrees; the ice hadn't been well stored and was slowly melting under his fingertips as tried to unsuccessfully sculpt it.

While I have seen my fill of kitschy ice bars and faux Roman ice statues at parties, as well young bartenders taking chain saws to blocks of ice, I was still incredibly curious about Ueno San's delicate approach to making gems out of ice.

Japan had long been on my travel hit list for its innovative drinks and top-quality tools. So much so that Bar High Five that Ueno San opened several years ago was close to my first stop getting off the plane.

Hidetsugo Ueno.

Craving a Gem

Ueno San got a reputation for his way with an ice cube and a knife during his tenure at Tokyo's super swanky Star Bar. It less than two minutes he can sculpt a piece of ice into a 15-faceted diamond. He estimates that he was once churning out 30 to 40 a night at Star Bar.

He has continued the tradition at his own bar High Five, in Tokyo's tony Ginza area, which he opened when he turned 40. The diamonds are primarily intended to be consumed with Japanese whiskey, but he adds that gin or a Martini or Manhattan would also work well. He has even made smaller diamonds to fill smaller glasses and pours.

A two-inch cube is removed from a block of ice and then he goes to work rapidly shaving triangular pieces of ice off with a specially made knife. The blade he uses faces forward so he doesn't cut his fingers as they leap around the cube. The show is easily half the fun. Chainsaws, he notes dryly, are not up to the task.

The multiple sides of the diamond reflect light in the glass much more than a simple globe and he refers to it as the brilliant cut. These diamond-shaped cubes are tailored to reduce surface-space contact with the ice for high-end spirits served on the rocks: ideally Japanese whiskey. He has even created a signature 24-sided cube in honor of Japanese whiskey producer Hibiki's stunning 24-sided glass bottle. He sources his ice in Japan from a special ice factory and the water is purified, a step that he recommends all bartenders take.

While he has been encouraged to try other shapes, such as a heart, they didn't fit the bill because they won't lay flat in a cocktail glass. He also tried doubling the number of facets on his ice diamond but found that once you pour liquid on it the reflective edges are so small that they dissolve.

Perfecting the Wheel

He says that while Western bartenders seem to continually want to improve upon on the basics, Japanese are happy with the standards and improving the tools that they already have at their disposal. He sees Japanese bartenders as true perfectionists rather than innovators, as many of us envision them in other parts of the world.

He gives examples of how basic drinks and bar tools may have been invented in the States, but vastly improved upon in Japan. He takes out a traditional cocktail shaker and shows that, because of dents and bumps from ice damage, after some use it won't sit flat on the table. The Japanese figured out how to create a perfectly balanced shaker which is now the industry standard. He adds that many of the bar tools advertised as Japanese are ironically made in China and that the best of them are simply better renditions of American bar basics.

No matter which stick they may be behind, Ueno San concludes that "Japanese are good at improving the product," be they at the bar or in the car.

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