Frank Cisneros’s fascination with Japanese style bartending
How did you first get into bartending? (including going to Japan to work as a bartender)?
I got into bartending a long time ago, I was 21 years old and lived in rural Southwestern Washington State where there’s not a whole lot to do. I was vintage shopping one day and I came across a copy of William Boothby’s “Mixed Drinks”, an early 1910’s edition and I had set out to make all the drinks in the book. My girlfriend at the time helped build a bar in my basement and I spent a year learning how to make all these classic drinks, this was around 2001. There were no cocktail bars on the West Coast at that point, there were only a couple in New York.
My first time going to an actual bar, I was 21 years old and I asked for a Tom Collins. I was confused that the bartender didn’t use powdered sugar or fresh lemon juice to make it. I realized then that all these things I learned in my book weren’t the real way that people were doing it.
Around 2006 I moved to NYC and started working as a wine director at a restaurant which was between Death and Company and PDT. It was on 1st Ave between 6th & 7th St. After my shift I would go these bars and see what they were doing. This was the very first year that they opened, so there weren’t many people doing this at the time. I realized that they were doing what I read about in this book about a half decade ago. I decided to stop focusing on wine and switched entirely to bartending.
I wound up bartending in Japan through Facebook of all things. My good friend posted a Facebook post in 2014 saying that he had an opportunity for somebody to potentially go to Japan to do a cultural bartending exchange at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo to teach about how we do things in New York and also learn how they do things in Japan. I thought, “OK, why not, I’ll throw my name in the hat and see what happens.” Sure enough the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo contacted me and offered me the opportunity. Little did we know how difficult it was actually going to be. It took almost a year to finish the visa process. We started in early 2014 and we finally finished at the end of 2014, around December. I went over there then. That was my first time in Asia, I never even visited Japan before and I had very little idea as to what I was getting myself into. I couldn’t speak the language, at all. I taught myself how to read Hiragana and Katakana before I went because I thought that would be helpful and it turned out to be very helpful. That’s how I wound up there.
What is your favorite thing about being a bartender involved in Japanese culinary?
I love being a bartender and operating in the Japanese food and beverage world because I feel like it’s my responsibility to be a careful ambassador of the culture.
I learned so much living and working in Japan and it was a tough challenge at times, but it really changed my outlook on what bartending is supposed to be about. Most notably was Omotenashi, which is the Japanese concept of hospitality; that really moved me because you’re working in an environment where there is no tipping and you’re doing hospitality just out of your love for it and because it’s the right thing to do. Also learning a new appreciation for the craft and tools; learning that, all along we have been sort of using Japanese bar tools completely incorrectly here in the West. Although we have been using them for a while, we were not using them in right ways. So, learning how to do that has been great and trying to be a responsible cultural ambassador while teaching my fellow bartenders and guests about all the great things I’ve learned about Japanese beverages, cocktails, techniques and Japanese style hospitality is my favorite part.
Since coming back from Japan how have your local clients reacted to Japanese style hospitality ‘Omotenashi’?
In NY, people are starting to be more cognizant and aware of Omotenashi because we have so many great Japanese restaurants and Japanese influenced restaurants starting. It feels like in the past couple of years there’s been an explosion of new Japanese bars and restaurants opening. As that happens people start to be more aware of the culture and they’re starting to become more educated of it. Whereas, previously, things like walking a guest to the door which is such a common thing in Japan, guests would be kind of confused by that in the bar environment. Even 2 years ago when I first moved back from Japan when I would do that, it would confuse guests but now I find that my guests almost expect it, especially in smaller bar environments. Its fun watching guests become educated and we’re all learning together at the same time as well.
Do you find any significant differences or parallels in bar tools between Western made and Japan made?
There are a lot of differences between Japanese bar tools and Western bar tools. I started using Japanese bar tools over a decade ago. Like everybody else who was using them at the time, I was using them incorrectly. 10 years ago, there was almost no information as to how to use Japanese bar tools and even now it’s a little bit of a mystery.
I gravitated towards Japanese bar tools in the way that most cocktail bartenders around the world have, because they are far and away the most high-quality bar tools made and they are the most aesthetically beautiful. 10 years ago, cocktail making was all about what was in the glass and just how good the product tasted. Now, everyone can do that; there’s no great difference between cocktail bars for the most part. There’s probably 300 great cocktail bars in New York where you can get a fantastic cocktail and the way things have started to become different is the presentation. Whether that's the environment or the vessel that you’re serving it in or the tools themselves; I think it’s a part of the process and it’s a part of the beauty of making cocktails. Japanese bar tools by far, out do the West in terms of aesthetic form and function.
What are some things important qualities when considering bar tools?
There are several things important to me when choosing a bar tool. First and foremost is the functionality and how well it actually operates. If it's a bar spoon for instance, the weight and its center of gravity is very important because it’s going to dictate how beautifully and efficiently it will stir. Typically, part of what makes Japanese bar tools so great is that, efficient motion is beautiful motion. Japanese bar tools will force you to work efficiently which then makes you work elegantly.
Shakers are another example of that; the weight and feel of the shaker and how easily it comes apart. In Japanese bartending there’s a lot of, what the West might consider flair but I consider flourishes, like elegant hand movements that might look superficial or unnecessary to a Western eye, but they are all designed to do a certain thing; like to remove the cap of a 3-piece shaker and set it aside for later tasting; so, you're doing these different things and they look beautiful. The weight of each of those pieces are crucially important.
The feeling of a mixing glass is very important because you want to stir very silently whereas in the West, we are generally taught to do it very quickly. We want to achieve dilution and temperature as quickly as we can to move on to the next drink. In Japan, everything is done silently so I often tell American bartenders, if they want to emulate the style of Japanese bartending, the best thing to do is learn to work quieter. If you work quietly, a lot of your motions will be forced to be what they do in Japan anyway, which is why quietude is at such a premium at Japanese cocktail bars. So, with stirring, the mixing vessel has to be very quiet. If you have a stirring vessel that has a riveted inside, which a lot of modern companies are making Japanese style vessels that are not quite formed correctly on the inside; the ice and spoon will clink around on the inside of the glass. That’s actually the opposite of what you're trying to achieve in Japanese technique.
What's are some differences between 2-piece and 3-piece shakers?
There's a big difference between 2-piece and 3-piece shakers. I learned it the hard way when I was working in Japan. For instance, the very first drink I made when standing behind the bar at the Mandarin was, I was making 2 of the same drinks and we had about 30 or 40 different cobbler 3-piece shakers and only 2 sets of 2-piece shakers. Of course, I gravitated instantly towards the 2-piece shakers, that’s what I knew; that's what I used for over a decade in New York. So, I build the drinks, slammed the tins together really loudly, clinking them together like we do in America, started shaking them like crazy and making a big spectacle. The whole bar was dead silent watching me. My senpai Kurihara-san came over and said "Frank-san that was super interesting style but never ever do that again." I learned very quickly that I was in a much different bartending environment.
What happens with the 3-piece shaker that’s different than the 2-piece shaker is, it forces you to focus on one drink at a time; which is a major Japanese technique; "Ichigo Ichie", one chance, one meaning, one moment to get it right for the guest. You're not supposed to be dividing your attention amongst 20 guests, you're supposed to make this drink for this guest right now and then you can move on to the next guest. It's not like doing 20 different drinks at once. The cobbler shaker forces you to do that. A lot of Japanese bar tools are about forcing you to do things in the correct way. It doesn't allow you to be lazy. It can be difficult for Western bartenders to change that style but once you do, you realize it's actually very liberating and you can be just as fast as you were before; it just requires some technique changes. In many regards you can make much better shake imprints because you can shake much harder as it is more compact and you can put a lot of force into it. Removable tops make it so you don't need a secondary strainer. You'll see a lot of times that American bartenders have the 2-piece shaker; they'll shake and put a Hawthorne strainer on and they'll double strain with a tea strainer. The reason being that the large volume and violent shaking motion of American style shaking creates a lot of additional ice chips and additional things that shouldn’t really be in the drink. With a cobbler shaker or 3-piece shaker, that doesn't happen and you don't need that third method of straining as the initial staining is enough. You get a beautiful foamy cocktail out of it. You actually wind up being more efficient than you think you would be. There's a lot of conception out there that a 2-piece is always more efficient and, in some regards, it is, but in many regards a 3-piece shaker can be more efficient.
How long have you been making drinks with Yukiwa bar tools and why do you choose them?
I have personally used Yukiwa products for over a decade. Yukiwa offers more stylistic choices with all different sorts of finishes like gold, rose-gold and stainless steel with certain combinations of those and different sizes and styles. That speaks to me a lot more especially in environments like Uchu or Bar Moga where we are building drinks in an individual manner. Having a gold set, a silver set, rose-gold set and all black set, depending on the drink you are making, the shaker will form what the drink is going to look like. I think of it like a set, Yukiwa allows me to have more set pieces.
What’s Japanese ingredients do you incorporate into the menu at Bar Moga? How do you approach creating new cocktails?
There are a couple of Japanese ingredients that I am trying to incorporate into drinks. For two reasons: I am trying to explore these ingredients myself but I also want to expose the Western public to Japanese ingredients other than yuzu and shiso. Two of my favorite ones right now are Kabosu, which is a great aromatic Japanese citrus. For some reason there are all these great super aromatic Japanese citruses. Yuzu is the most famous one but Kabosu, which I often describe as a cross between a tangerine and a lime, it has the tangy sweetness of a tangerine but the aromatics of a lime and maybe a little bit of yuzu. It's a beautiful citrus and I don't know why people don't use it more. Another great example is Sudachi. Sudachi is this tiny little lime like thing, I always tell people to think of it as “Yuzu is to lemon as sudachi is to lime.” I try to use that whenever possible, often as a zest.
My approach to creating new cocktails, whether influenced by Japanese techniques, ingredients or otherwise, is to always start with the classics. An astute observer of classic cocktails can look at my menu and say, "that's a daquiri, that's a margarita, that's a white lady." and they're all sort of variations of that. I started with the classics almost 20 years ago and I think I never fully deviated from that nor will I ever. I highly admire the string of bartenders out there that are just purely wildly creative with no hinge in the classics whatsoever, but for me, it's both where I came from and what I've experienced in Japan. Japan is very much a time capsule of classic cocktail bartending. When you go to a Ginza bar it's effectively the same as it has been since the 1910's or 1920's, it's always been that way and they don't really deviate too much from the classics, they hone them down to perfection. As a culture, Japan is famous for that, taking Western influences like French pastries for instance and perfecting them to next level flavors. Its more about distilling it down its essence. Classics will always inform my methodology for making drinks.
What are some weird cocktails you've experimented with?
Over my career with experimenting with new cocktails I've had a lot of failures and a handful of successes with some pretty fun weird ones. I've been inspired a lot lately with Kaiseki, which is a tradition of Japanese multi-course meals which came from the area around Kyoto; they often have very beautiful and elaborate presentations. So, I’ve been playing with cocktails that have edible components as much as possible so it's not just the alcohol, there's some other element that you eat. A good example of that was the Ramen cocktail at Uchu. We would take Asian pears and spiralize it so that it looked like ramen noodles and we had a shochu and yuzu based refreshing sour cocktail that we would shake and pour over the noodles before topping with togarashi. The noodles were soaked in pear syrup and pear brandy too, so the drink looks like ramen but you would drink the cocktail and then you eat the pear garnish which looks like noodles. It looks very pretty and tastes very good but I think the appearance of ramen confuses some people are like, "why does this look like ramen?!"