Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood was built on a swamp. You can get lost in swamps and, while the flashy shopping district now looks like a cross between Times Square and Rodeo Drive, it’s still easy to get turned around. Restaurants and lofty bars are stacked over the street. There’s window shopping for blocks.
It felt like a maze as my sister and I searched for Bar High Five. Before leaving the US, my nephew, an inspiring mixologist, said, “You have to go there. It’s well worth the door charge.” He didn’t mention that it’s Number 18 on the World’s Best List. I was clueless, ready for a cocktail after a long day of sight seeing, and so relieved to find the understated entry. Night was settling in as we claimed our places in the 20-seat space. I was anticipating the drink experience but the cocktail cubes were the real revelation.
At home I could never claim a bartender’s skill set or mirror the exacting Japanese style but with gumption and practice, it’s still possible to savor a decent drink embellished with crystalline cocktail cubes in Tokyo style. But first, let me tell you what we found in Ginza.
This is a time to stay home but part of my Plan Now/Travel Later series and it contains Affiliate links.
My sister at the street entrance to the Bar High Five
The Mystery of Clear Cocktail Cubes
A few days before encountering Ginza, I enjoyed the much quieter beauty of the Ueno neighborhood and noticed a poster near the Yanaka Beer Hall. It showed an oversized cube that sparkled like a Swarovski crystal. Before that, in the village of Uji, which is renowned for its matcha, I sipped a flute of ice-brewed Gyokuro tea. The tea powder was infused overnight in slow melting ice. Drinking this surprising concoction was a delicate delight. That slight, green cube and the poster were hints of the very Japanese affection for specialized ice and pointed me towards the cocktail cubes culture.
Award winning High Five Bar bartender, Kaori Kurakami in action
Style in Motion
As the elevator doors opened to the basement bar, I knew why my nephew was excited to send us there. The space was surprising – it resembled a New York pocket bar with wood paneling and green velvet banquettes. Tables faced the center stage bartop. While illuminated above and through a wall of bottles, the shadowy interior was just bright enough to highlight the bartenders and flatter the guests. But nothing about it spoke directly of Japanese style. It took a while for my American eyes to adjust to the rarified ambiance of this classic Tokyo bar dedicated to the art of drinking well.
Once positioned on our assigned stools, a very proper young bartender asked us about our drink preferences and, as I learned later, also studied our disposition before choosing a match from their menu of classics, originals, and variations. There are twenty drinks on the High Five menu given an educated request, I’m sure the bartender would’ve been happy to comply with a flourish.
I requested smokey notes, neither bitter or sweet, but layered flavors. He promised the perfect match then gracefully began fitting large, clear cocktail cubes into a glass. His concentration while fitting each cube into the slender glass was mesmerizing. Since presentation is king at the High Five, it had to be cafefully chilled to keep the final, crystal-clear cocktail cubes from cracking.
We were lucky to attend on a quiet evening and after pouring over my pictures, I realized that the award-winning bartender, Ms. Kaori Kurakami, worked that night. She is recognized as the prodigy of renowned owner, Hidetsugu Ueno, and has won awards independently as well. They’ve worked together for more than a decade in a relentless mission to propel Japanese bartending techniques into the world. Kurakami’s manner was circumspect and focused as I quietly filmed her fluid dance of pouring, measuring, and shaking each drink before placing it down, a signal for the bartender to serve.
Before You Visit Bar High Five
Since it’s established in one of the most luxurious neighborhoods in the world, prepare for an expensive evening. We had two drinks each and, including the door charge, spent over a hundred dollars. There’s also a code of respect at the High Five Bar. Noisy or rude guests will not be tolerated. Note that since the pandemic, hours have been curtailed. Check the website for current hours before you go. Or leave the organizing up to a local expert and take a tour of Ginza bars.
The Origins of Japanese Bar Style and Cocktail Cubes Culture
As early as 1874, Yokohama’s International Hotel claimed to be the birthplace of the first Japanese cocktail soon after German-born/American-raised, Louis Eppinger arrived to manage the bar. The hotel catered to foreign guests but aside from Eppinger, the staff was Japanese and they soaked up his style. After he passed in 1907, his acolytes fanned out around the world. Many found employment in Tokyo, mixing genial hospitality and style into a uniquely Japanese approach to high end bar experience.
Apart from the laborers drinking to escape, a cocktail culture emerged to bridge the worlds of home and office. Tory’s Distillery (today’s Suntory) rose to cocktail prominence in the 1950’s and eventually fancy mixed drinks lost favor in favor of their simpler distilled drinks.
In a quest for innovation, resourceful bartenders started carving cocktail ice cubes with special characteristics. They discovered that a dimpled, round ice ball melted slowly in Whisky drinks. Large cocktail cubes became a trend and eventually, Hidetsugu Ueno, founder of Bar High Five, designed diamond-shaped crystal-clear cubes that glimmered in the glass. You can read more details about cocktail cubes history in the Japan Times.
Round and clear cocktail cubes: Photo by Edsel L is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
A Novice in a Whiskey World
It’s said that taste buds change with age. A baby would be startled to tears by tagine spice with its spicey chili, salt and lime, while an adult, this adult, might crave it.
I think memory has a role as well. I relish a true Michelada, with beer and lemon juice over ice in a tumbler rimmed with fresh tajine. It reminds me of happy days overlooking a Baja beach at sunset. However, in my twenties, as much as friends tried to educate me, I hated beer and couldn’t stand distilled liquors.
Months after visiting Japan, I was in California as the world entered lock down. In the before times, I would celebrate occasional happy hours with my sweetheart. We’d enjoy a glass of wine through cooking and dinner. Since the pandemic, with each wave of bad news and further isolation, I started exploring cocktails and bought a round mold to make my own oversized and cloudy cocktail ‘cubes.’
No Longer ‘Lost in Translation’
Many start their education about Whiskey in Scotland, but I haven’t visited yet. My first inkling that whiskey was worth exploring came, indirectly, from the actor, Bill Murray in the Sophia Coppola film, Lost in Translation. His character was in Tokyo to film a Suntory whiskey commercial and he drank it with a knowing ennui.
I can imagine listening to him in the film’s fancy Tokyo, penthouse bar as he explains, in his world weary voice, how whiskey is low in calories and carbohydrates, far less than beer, wine or sake. Our glasses would shimmer with sparkling clear cocktail cubes. The large round cubes were nothing like I make at home, until recently.
Crystal clear home ice ball maker
Pursuing the Art of Crystal Clear Cocktail Cubes
You might think that water impurity makes cloudy ice but more likely it’s the freezing process itself. Clear ice requires a slower chill than most home freezers offer. Not many of us are willing to wait 24 to 30 hours for an ice cube.
However, I can now create two, large round balls every other day, then remove them to store in a container in the back of the freezer. I’ve learned to chill my glass to avoid cracking the hard-won cocktail cubes before I pour a few ounces of my prized, Suntory 12-year distilled Whiskey. I won the bottle recently and save it to share with other whiskey fans – most of the time.
Order Your Own the Clear Ice Ball Maker:
Classic Whiskey Cocktails
The Highball: Whisky and Soda
- Fill a glass to the brim with ice and allow it to chill.
- Pour in the whisky and stir well.
- Top off the glass with more ice.
- Add soda (1 part whisky and 3 to 4 parts soda – sparkling water or Sprite)
- Stir once with a bar spoon and serve.
On The Rocks
- Carefully add a large ice cube to a chilled glass. A large sphere will chill the whisky and minimize the dilution.
- Add the whisky and stir gently with a bar spoon before serving.
- Pour the whisky into a glass.
- Pour in an equal amount of natural mineral water stored at room-temperature.
Experiment with a few drops of water or soda to “open the drink up.” I’ve found this makes a surprising difference with a number of cocktails.
One day it would be a privilege to visit the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery for their tour. It’s closed temporarily during the pandemic but will open again. Reservations are required at least a day in advance.
However I use my cocktail cubes at home, each Tokyo-inspired sip will be full and satisfying. I’ll flash back to watching Kaori Kurakami shaking her cocktails with a side ways glance before her vessel floats down and she pours into the perfectly chilled glass in front of her.