It is a Sunday afternoon and Hidetsugu Ueno, owner and bartender of the critically acclaimed Bar High Five in Tokyo, Japan calmly sips his latte and expresses for the nth time, “I hate doing guest bartending shifts.” He expounds that he only does it for friends. In this case, The Curator Coffee & Cocktails’ third year anniversary. It’s the second year in a row he has celebrated it with them, too. This may seem odd to hear from a man of his stature, but what he talks about next provides clarity.
Looking back at his career, Ueno-san, as he is fondly called, shares in his soft voice, “I gave my 20s to a bottle service bar that does not exist anymore. I gave my 30 to Star Bar where I worked with my mentor Hisashi Kishi. I continue to give my 40 to my own bar, Bar High Five.”
He began his cocktailing career in 1992, the year he received his bartender license certificate. Ueno first worked in the now-defunct lounge bar Nobuko before moving to Star Bar in Tokyo, Japan, where he met Kishi and established a master-apprentice relationship with the former International Bar Association world champion. Under Kishi’s tutelage, Ueno learned the foundations of Japanese bartending: a style that is very much classically driven while upholding quiet confidence, poise as well as mastery of knowledge and techniques. Imagine having to master a Japanese hard shake (the manner of effectively shaking a cocktail) and the science behind it for months. He eventually mastered seven different hard shakes that would serve various purposes.
Ueno left what has then already become a cocktail institution to start Bar High Five. Established in 2008, it is a small space lodged inside a nondescript office building, which continues to draw crowds for drinks even if it’s quite challenging to get a seat. The lure is strong and hard to resist—there’s no menu. Ueno concocts his drinks based on the customer’s current mood, which he finds out by simply asking questions. “Our concept is no concept,” he says. “Bartenders are like mirrors.” In other words, you get what you give.
Consequently, Bar High Five has been the subject of well-known TV shows like Jack Maxwell’s “Booze Traveler,” David Chang’s “Mind of a Chef,” and Vice’s “Munchies.” In all three features, Ueno showcases his skills in ice carving where he hacks down a solid block of ice into smaller pieces for shaking or stirring and by request, carves a Perfect Ice Diamond. Throughout the years, cocktail enthusiasts from all over the world would go for a pilgrimage to Bar High Five and hail Ueno as “the last hope of Japanese bartending.” He would then shrug off the title and credit it to his ability to speak English thanks to his time as an exchange student in Washington, USA.
His humble bar would not go unnoticed as it consistently garnered spots on the Top 5, 10, and 15 of the World’s 50 Best Bars list and slowly climbed up to its rightful place among the hot spots of cocktail legends like Dale DeGroff, Salvatore Calabrese, Jim Meehan, Gary Regan, David Wondrich, and Jared Brown. Last year, Bar High Five placed third in Asia’s 50 Best Bars, 23rd in the World’s 50 Best Bars, and most notably, Ueno won International Bartender of the Year at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
The lure is strong and hard to resist—there’s no menu. Ueno concocts his drinks based on the customer’s current mood, which he finds out by simply asking questions. “Our concept is no concept,” Hidetsugu Ueno says.“Bartenders are like mirrors.” In other words, you get what you give.
In 2015, Ueno moved his tavern to a bigger location in Ginza, Tokyo. “It took seven and a half years, but we finally have our own bathroom,” he proclaims. Since then, it has been full steam ahead not just for his establishment but also for his career, with invitations to judge international competitions, consult for shops, and be a guest bartender across the world.
While Ueno’s achievements speak volumes, none can contend and compare to his ability to engage with guests, something not many bartenders are quite attuned to. What’s more, for a much-celebrated mixologist like him, it’s surprising to know that he does not drink. When he does, which is rarely, he turns to Johnnie Walker Black Mizuwari, a concoction of whisky and water, which he labels a “business drink.”
Ueno speaks ever so softly, and it’s but a foil to the tough person that he is and the strong spirits that he makes. Molded by humility, he lets his credentials do all the talking. And the people, many of whom admire him for his line of work, hear it loud and clear.
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 14 No. 1