a master at work :: 10/10 :: €20 for a cocktail
Review and Photos by Toney Teddy Fernandez. Editing by Shane Eaton.
Bar High Five is ranked the world's 13th best bar and the 3rd best in Asia. Headed by Hidetsugu Ueno who is famous for the hard shake and his ice talents, you can’t miss out on this place when in Tokyo. High Five is located near the Ginza metro line and adjacent to the high end shopping streets of Tokyo. Thanks to an immensely tall glass-covered building, the street that leads towards High Five is almost in complete darkness even though it was the late afternoon. The gloomy atmosphere sets the mood for the mystic drinking experience at Ueno’s bar.
The bar is situated on the basement floor of the Efflore Ginza5 building and my reservation was at 17:00, right when the bar opens. Shane and I prefer to visit bars right when they open to avoid crowds. This gives us a chance to take better photos and also to chat up the bartenders. The elevator directly opened into the very small foyer of the bar with a sign "Please wait to be seated". As I was greeted by a young barman, I could see Ueno Sensei preparing for his busy evening at the far end of the very long bar counter. I took my seat up at the bar and then came the master. I presented myself and exchanged business cards with him, with Ueno realizing I arrived from miles and miles away, from the land of 1930, MaG and Nottingham Forest. He shared his fond memories of 1930 when he was in Milano for Super-Bar a few years back.
Bar High Five was beautifully decorated with thick and dark wooden panels, with at least a dozen bar stools, all of them facing the long counter. The bottles on display behind the bar were beautiful, with an amazing selection of spirits from Japan and rest of the world. The room also has four tables and a round table with a couple of chairs facing each other, clearly for happy couples celebrating their moments in life.
Up at the bar, I was impressed with the Japanese hospitality. You can tuck your bag under the chair in a small drawer. The bartenders provide you a fresh white towel to wipe your hands and they even gave me a large cloth so I could rest my D750 on the bar counter. Since the bar counter is really long, one would doubt where to sit to get the perfect view of Ueno's cocktail making. Actually, you can sit where ever you want as Ueno alternates between two strategically placed stations, so that everyone gets a good view. There is no menu at High Five. The order is based on your preference, style, taste and mood. It’s always a challenge for me in cocktail bars. I would like to try as many drinks as possible but I also need to take "non-blurry" photos!
I ordered a Whiskey Sour to start, and the bartender asked me if I prefer egg white in it. Of course my answer was yes. At this point I got permission to take photos of the master Ueno at work. It was a visual experience of art of making cocktails through my viewfinder. I was impressed with his technical skills, elegance and velocity while mixing drinks. Ueno has a unique and graceful style of tasting his cocktails. He takes a sample of the cocktail with a ceramic spoon and places his hand over his mouth while tasting the drink. It almost looks as if he’s whispering to the spoon.
When I returned to my seat, Ueno told me in making the Whiskey Sour he prefers Bourbon and suggested the 7-year-old Old Ezra Kentucky Straight . I agreed straight away. The cocktail came out to be one of the best Whiskey Sours that I have tasted. The Old Ezra really made a difference with subtle taste notes of nuts and oakiness. It is definitely a power punch of a bourbon. I said to the bartender, back in Italy we say "una bomba".
There were three American travelers seated nearby and one of them told me, "you know back in States we just call it a bomb." Hi I'm Ricky Tamburro, he said. I got quickly acquainted with the group, who had all ordered personalized cocktails. I decided to move to one seat closer to talk to the friendly group. That’s when the bartender justly but politely scolded me, "Wait, you need the permission from Ueno to switch seats". The permission was quickly granted and I moved over.
As a second drink, I ordered an Old Fashioned as Ueno is famous for his ice. The group next to me also ordered their second round of drinks with one drink catching my attention. The Full Bloom is a gin-based drink which the bartender said was available only in Japan. Full bloom came in a Martini-style glass with a tinge of cherry color and it went straight to Ricky. I took photos of his drink with permission and he also allowed me to taste it. Another bomba and a totally unexpected taste thanks to masterclass cocktail making. It had dry gin, Sakura cherry blossom liqueur, lemon juice and Luxardo Maraschino. One can also order the Ful Bloom with Japanese whisky but that will have to wait for my next visit.
Meanwhile my Old Fashioned arrived, with the signature thick block of ice. The drink was elegant, with a perfect balance between the perfectly diluted whisky, bitters and sugar. Inside the cocktail there were also three cherries beaded on a stick and an orange peel.
Bar High Five is worth a visit and is definitely a place to hang out with other cocktail appreciating tourists in Tokyo. Ueno is a busy man and could very well be on tour, so make sure you consult his travel schedule located on the bar’s web site. If you are lucky enough to catch him at the bar then prepare to marveled by his elegant cocktail making and his signature hard shake.