Q&A: Cocktail master Hidetsugu Ueno of Bar High Five

Updated on October 24 2016

Simply put, Hidetsugu Ueno is one of one of the most esteemed bartenders on the planet. Bar High Five, his Tokyo cocktail spot, has long been a stop on the international circuit for cocktail aficionados, which is why it was such a treat when it was announced that he was launching a Bar High Five pop-up at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental — but this is no ordinary pop-up. Aside from recreating the atmosphere and the cocktails from Ueno-san’s Ginza institution, the two-month pop-up is meant to serve as an introduction to Hong Kong and also a means of promoting his forthcoming venture.

In partnership with Roger Chan and Brandon Chau of Attire House, Ueno-san is ‘producing’ a new bar located in Central. Bar De Luxe, as it will be called, will be located inside Attire House’s permanent location, which is expected to open next month. With one week left in the pop-up’s run, and just a few weeks to go until Bar De Luxe debuts, we chatted with Ueno-san about cocktails, coffee shops and why he doesn’t drink alcohol.

Why did you want to open a bar in Hong Kong?
First of all, it’s not mine, I’m just producing it. I did this because it’s not High Five. I say 100% no if someone asks me to open High Five in another country. High Five should be in Tokyo, and I have only one body. If something is called High Five, I want to be there 100%. When I go to other countries, some people say ‘Let’s make a business together’. I think, why would I make business with you? Who are you?

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[Roger] didn’t give up. He’s one of the international regulars in my place. I didn’t know he was involved in F&B business. I thought simply he was enjoying cocktails, and one day he asked me to produce a bar. I do usually stop the conversation, but he didn’t give up. He kept coming back to me to ask. He said it’s ok not to name it High Five. I gave him the conditions and everything and he conformed, and I started working on it.

This one is called High Five because to do a De Luxe pop-up doesn’t make sense, no one knows the name. So we’re letting them know High Five produced that bar. Here, I do High Five-style, maybe 80+ percent, and then the Hong Kong people will know what I’m doing in my country. If they want to enjoy my style, they can enjoy De Luxe and not have to fly to Japan.

Hidetsugu Ueno
Ueno-san carving one of his signature ice diamonds.

How would you describe your bartending style?
Many Japanese bartenders focus in a very classic way, very old-school. Western bartenders, they’re looking for something new, something different. But we focus on ‘What can I do for a classic cocktail in my way’. It’s not twisting, it’s just how they can put their focus on a classic drink. That is a very Japanese way of thinking, and I am the same. But in my bar, I get many international visitors, so I’m a very conservative, old-school bartender, but I try to give something interesting, something fun for the international visitors, some different experience. So I use many different local flavours and local spirits, stuff like that.

Have you conquered mixology or do you still have things you’d like to learn?
I don’t learn anything from anyone else anymore, but I’m still learning, still asking myself, still teaching myself. ‘Is this the best way or is there a better way?’ When I’m making drinks I’m confident this is the best way to make a drink. But sometimes it comes to me through the air: ‘Hey, how about this way?’ OK, I’ll try it. I don’t drink myself, so I serve it to others.

I can’t drink, I’m very weak for alcohol.

Then how did you get into this line of work?
It’s going to take four hours to talk about it. [Laughs.] I never wanted to become a bartender, because I don’t drink. But I’m a big fan of coffee. I used to be a coffee brewer when I was a teenager, 18 years old. I wanted to have my own coffee shop. People in Japan read books, stay a few hours, maybe 4 or 5 hours, with one cup of coffee. It’s difficult to make a life that way. So I was just thinking, how do I make a life with my coffee shop? Boom, I should serve alcohol in my coffee shop!

I started learning to make cocktails after university, and one day I realised there’s no end to making cocktails because 10 years ago I was tasting, serving it, asking ‘How’s the drink?’ because my perfect balance might not be yours. Now, every day when I’m back in my bar, I taste it, make it balanced, serve it, and I’m still asking ‘How’s your drink, is it OK, any preference let me know.’ Maybe 10 years [from now] I’ll be doing the same. So if I got everything for bartending and I didn’t have to learn anything else, I’d probably open my coffee shop.

Hidetsugu Ueno
One of the libations on offer at the Bar High Five pop-up.

Are visitors to this pop-up getting the whole Bar High Five experience? Are there any key differences?
The key difference between my bar and here is they have a menu here. I don’t have a menu. I think that’s the biggest difference.

Did you have to bring any special spirits with you from Japan?
Some of them. Most of them.

Why have you decided to use a menu for this pop-up?
Why? Because they asked me. [Laughs.]