Bartender Koji Ozaki is an artist though he would politely disagree. For over forty years he has been pursuing beauty and perfection as poured from a cocktail shaker. Order a gimlet at his Bar Radio and you run the risk of not being able to drink one anywhere else. At least that’s what happened to Ryu Murakami, the famed novelist and Bar Radio regular, who recounts this delicious dilemma in an essay dedicated to the gimlet in Ozaki’s sumptuous Bar Radio Cocktail Book.
Ozaki, 65, is dapper and trim, perfectly at ease in his summer uniform of stiff-collared white shirt, white bow tie and white vest. His movements behind the long walnut bar are graceful and precise. Though he has a reputation for reticence, when he talks about his craft smiles come easily.
“The gimlet is a simple drink but difficult to make well,” explains Ozaki. “You’ve got to put aijo, love, into it,” he adds flashing a smile. ”Making a delicious cocktail,” he says, “is exactly like preparing a delicious bowl of green tea.”
Since he was 17, Ozaki has studied tea ceremony and Japanese flower arrangement. He is a licensed teacher of both. Everything at Bar Radio—the service, the drinks, the decor and accoutrements—are informed by biishiki, an aesthetic consciousness, and by the desire for utsukushii ugoki, beautiful movement with no wasted motion. Both types of awareness, says Ozaki, are essential to bartending.
Every detail of Bar Radio has been thoughtfully designed by Ozaki. On an antique cupboard stands a large, dramatically lighted flower arrangement. Smaller arrangements too are spaced along the bar. Art Nouveau lamps with thick glass shades drop soft pools of light on the walnut counter and gently illuminate the hundreds of bottles that line the long shelves. Several vintage radios sit silently among the collection of gleaming antique cocktail shakers. Jazz drifts unobtrusively from hidden speakers.
Ozaki hails from Tokushima Prefecture. He started his working career as a salary man, but quickly tired of it. He fled to Tokyo at 24 and found employment in a coffee shop that also served drinks in the evening. He taught himself the rudiments of bartending from an old copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book. Eventually he got a job as a bartender in the Ginza where he worked for six months. In 1972, he opened his first bar, Bar Radio, in Jingumae. His next bar, 2nd Radio, in Gaienmae followed in 1986 and 3rd Radio, in Minami Aoyama, opened in 1998. The first two establishments have since closed, and 3rd Radio, after an extensive remodeling, is now simply called again, Bar Radio.
“The gimlet should contain only fresh lime juice and dry gin,” Ozaki explains as he twists a lime wedge inside a small square of white cotton cloth—a traditional Japanese method of extracting juice. All fruit-based cocktails at his bars are prepared in this manner.
The tea ceremony has clearly influenced his cocktail shaker technique—no brusque movements that might disturb a guest. Ozaki holds the shaker in his fingertips. The elbows are kept close to the body and the shaking is performed only with the wrists. “It must be done elegantly, like a lovely dance,” he says.
He pours the gimlet into a delicately etched cone-shaped, 100-year-old glass from England. The lime juice and gin have married to form a pale jade opalescence rimmed with foam as fine as diamond dust. He sets the glass on a coaster then pushes it five centimeters forward until it rests, like a fashion model, under a spotlight.
When designing cocktails, Ozaki believes the glass is the most important factor. “If you think of fashion,” he says, “the glass is like a dress, the clothes on a model.”
The shelves behind the bar sparkle with glassware from the finest crystal makers of Europe and Japan: Baccarat, Saint Louis, Lalique, Hoya, and others. Many are antiques or “one of a kind” pieces. Glasses for champagne cocktails, highballs, and water were designed by Ozaki himself. But he won’t take all the credit. Many of his customers are artists and designers, he explains. “They are very good teachers.”
Creating a new cocktail is not difficult, he says. Every night he invents many, then forgets them the next day. Eventually the popular ones become standards. “The most difficult thing about making a new drink is naming it,” he confides. Cocktails usually get their names from flowers, fruits, or places, but such labels are dull. Ozaki came up with naming his original cocktails after Hollywood movie stars, such as the Marilyn Monroe, the Greta Garbo, the Marlene Dietrich, the Humphrey Bogart, or after jazz composers and compositions like the Duke Ellington, the Satin Doll, the Mood Indigo, and the Prelude to a Kiss. Ozaki says the spirit used in the drink outlines the star’s character—the other ingredients and the glass provide the story and drama.
He has experimented with cocktails flavored with chocolate from the boutiques of Jean-Paul Hevin or Pierre Marcolini. They have proven to be quite popular—as are his “healthy cocktails.” Made with fresh fruit like mango or Kyoho grapes, these drinks have a low alcohol content. “They don’t cause hangovers,” explains Ozaki. “And are good for a woman’s skin.”
Ozaki says Tokyo bars are the best in the world for their vast selection of spirits and high level of bartending. He stocks over 250 brands of Scotch single malt whiskey, thirty some brands of bourbon and rum, plus a dozen varieties each of brandy, marc, cognac, calvados, grappa, gin, vodka, tequila, and, of course, many liqueurs. He doesn’t, however, use Japanese alcohols. They don’t suit cocktails, he says. “Sake and shochu are most delicious just as they are.”
Every week Ozaki gives lessons in tea ceremony and flower arrangement to all his bartenders. Once a year he conducts a seminar in which he lectures to some 150 bartenders, mostly from the Ginza area, on the fine points of drinks like the Martini or the Sidecar. Ozaki estimates there are about 20 bars around the city run by his “graduates,” bartenders who have worked and studied with him. “If a person is unusually sensitive, and pays attention to details, he can learn to be a good bartender in three years,” he explains. “The average person needs ten years.”
Ozaki’s passion for beauty and design is exemplified in the Bar Radio Cocktail Book displayed on the bar. The book is lush with color photos of cocktails in exquisite glasses and settings, essays by famous customers, and hundreds of bilingual recipes.
His passion for design also extends to the type of customer he prefers. “The drinking should be done without any commotion,“ he says. “Sometimes I have to ask a person to leave.” Groups of two or maybe three are best—with four people, voices get too loud. “The most important thing,” he stresses, “is that customers should enjoy the atmosphere here.”
His table charge is one of the highest in the city—2,000 yen per person, and a drink, on average, costs about 1,500 yen. The plate of otsumami, however, the tidbits that traditionally come with a first drink in Japan, are of extraordinary quality: slices of plum marinated in white wine with vanilla, Parma ham with fresh figs, cream cheese with walnuts and raisins, fresh kiwi fruit with mint cream, and tiny scallops marinated with olive oil and parsley. These savories are served on Italian porcelain with a fork and knife procured in a Paris antique market—sterling silver with turned wooden handles.
Ozaki’s art is fleeting. It lasts an hour or an evening. Yet it leaves a lasting impression—a stunning drink, an alluring encounter you can have nowhere else. Calling oneself an artist, he says, would be awkward. He prefers the term artisan. “But I would be honored to be considered an artist,” he adds with a quick smile. “A good artisan can someday become an artist.”
Bar Radio 3-10-34 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3402-2668. Open Monday to Saturday 6pm to 1am. Closed Sundays and Holidays. www.bar-radio.com