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An Educated Taste for Drink January 31, 2016

Posted by Alex Sawit in Food & Drink, Happenings at the Shop.

By Alex Sawit

January 31, 2016



The maestro of mixology, Hidetsugu Ueno, at his Bar High Five in Tokyo.


   Truth: all drinkers drink, but not equally. The great British drinks writer Michael Jackson (in my opinion, the most eloquent whisky writer who ever lived) used to say that any drinker who claims to possess a cultivated palate ought to drink first and foremost for the taste of it. “In the end, there are only two kinds of drinker,” he wrote. “The discriminating and the indiscriminate.”

   Let’s be honest. Not everyone really cares to have an educated taste for drink. At any given bar on any given night in any given country, you won’t have trouble finding indiscriminate drinkers – the boozers if you will. Boozers are fairly easy to spot; they’re the ones who tell you that all they want is to get a “good buzz” while appearing to drink fashionably, throwing their money at whatever expensive horse piss the bartender is passing off as chic. I apologize for the unkindness, but I just want to be emphatic. Spend all you want on expensive drinks; that doesn’t make you a better drinker.

   I find it more rewarding to drink at a bar with genuine people who know how to taste what they’re drinking and care about sharing that appreciation. Thankfully, I was able to enjoy such company when The Curator – that no-nonsense cocktail bar hidden by that dark sliding door at the back of Cyrano – invited the great Hidetsugu Ueno to serve as its celebrity guest bartender for one special night last December.

   “I have the world’s greatest bartender in my bar!” cheered a beaming Jericson, The Curator’s founder, happy with disbelief that he was able to bring this living legend of Bar High Five in Tokyo for a gig in the Philippines.

   “He wasn’t bothering to measure the drinks,” admiringly commented Poch, The Curator’s senior bartender, about their celebrated Japanese guest. “He was doing it by eye, making adjustments with each drink based on how he felt each glass needed it.”

   Now, I’m not the world’s most ardent fan of cocktails. Offer me a good whisky or a nice wine and most of the time I’ll choose either of those over a mixed drink. Having said that, this doesn’t preclude me from favoring three classics: the Martini, the Manhattan, and the Negroni.

   Invented by the Italians, who possess an enviable wealth of experience when it comes to making beautiful drinks, the Negroni properly made can be a sublime experience – lusciously smooth in the mouth, with a refined interplay of sweetness, richness, and sharpness over ice, making it one of the rare cocktails that can be perfect either as a casual treat over lunch on a sunny day, or as a suave gesture in the presence of evening companions. Unfortunately, local bartenders usually make this cocktail by applying a typically Pinoy sweet tooth, resulting in a syrupy slop that overwhelms the possibility of yummy subtleties. Hence, leading up to this night at The Curator, I had never previously at a local bar had a Negroni that was worth remembering.

   This night, however, our celebrity Japanese bartender offered guests his version, labelled a Black Negroni, which Ueno-san crafted with intuitive proportions of Tanqueray, Carpano Antica Formula, and Fernet Branca.

   “Here, try it,” said Joco, my Cyrano business partner, after he placed a glass on the counter. I took one sip and was immediately quieted. I wasn’t expecting Ueno-san’s interpretation to taste like this. Having been acclimatized to how local bartenders make the Negroni, I felt compelled to pause in silent reflection. I took another sip just to be sure about how I felt.

   It was exquisite. It was perfect.

   “This is an outstanding Negroni,” was all I could manage to say to Joco in that humbling moment. Joco, who is the first genuine Negroni aficionado I ever met and whose influence is the reason I acquired a liking for this classic drink, wholeheartedly agreed with my pronouncement.

   “I know,” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “It’s so perfectly balanced!”

   As if on cue, our mixologist hostess Tiff entered the scene and happily parked at the bar counter next to me.

   “Tiff,” I told her sincerely, “that is an outstanding Negroni.”

   “Yes!” she gushed with a big smile, unable to hide how awesomely she felt about it. “That’s an outstanding Negroni!”

   Tiff, who is one of the co-owners of The Curator and who holds the distinction as the mixologist who made the best Martini I’ve ever had anywhere, then compared notes with me about Ueno-san’s skills.

   “He used a larger than normal sized peel for the Negroni,” she said, fully aware that Ueno chose to use lemon instead of the usual orange peel to create a signature twist.

   “What amazes me,” I observed, hinting at the effect of that chunky lemon peel, “is that he figured a way to keep it balanced even as the ice continues to melt. The taste gets milder and milder as the drink gets watered down, but all the flavors still meld and beautifully come through.”

   If only boozers could understand this about drinking.

   There were other cocktails on Ueno-san’s guest menu at The Curator, but the fact that I was able to share drinks that evening with good folks like Joco and Tiff, who understood how I felt and whom I understood in return, only made tonight’s bar experience that much more fulfilling. Without folks like these at the familial heart of any bar, a bar becomes a soul-less community.

   And oh, there were plenty of boozers that night too, mindlessly downing Ueno-san’s superlative creations one after another as if they were popping pills for a fix. Whether they were just faking that they could taste the difference in Ueno’s drinks or whether they only understood the “cool factor” of being served $15 cocktails by the world’s most famous bartender, they still got the good buzz that they came for.

   Sigh…ignorance is bliss.







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