Hidetsugu Ueno (many call him Ueno-san) is one of the most recognisable figures on the international bartending scene. The rocker-billy hair style strikes the eye as does his iconic ice carved diamonds he so casually drops in a rocks glass. His chilled demeanour tells me he really knows his stuff. He is of course the master ice-carver from his very own establishment ‘High Five Bar’ in Tokyo. Here in Sydney for Bar Week to teach Sydney bartenders his craft, I caught up with Ueno-san at the Ivy Sunroom for a ‘close shave’ with a well seasoned and very ‘sharp knife’.

What is the history of Japanese ice carving?

The ice carving history in Japan started with the ice ball, you know, the round ice. It’s been 45-50 years’ history to like a less dilution for whiskey on the rock.

If you go for whiskey on the rock in Japan, you get mostly ice ball. It’s not fun, it’s not special in Japan anymore I thought we needed something new, something interesting, something more fun – so I to think one hundred and eighty degrees opposite way to carve ice. Bars in Japan, in general, they are very, very small. So there’s no place to store ice machine in the bar. So we basically buy a block of ice every day, we cut it down the size we want to use. That was, I think, mainly the carving ice history in Japan so far. 

For the drink we inspired of course by the ice ball, whiskey on the rocks. But if you leave the ice ball in with the whiskey, in five minutes, the ice ball will become like a mushroom, you know? So, it’s melt, it’s ice anyway, so we decided to make a lot of edge to use a reflection to make shiny clear edges.

Where did you learn how to carve ice diamonds?

Oh, the diamond. When I was working at a bar called the Star Bar in Tokyo. So the idea was just starting to emerge in the master bartender’s mind. And I just carve it to show him is this the one you want? And he said “yes, I want”, so we start carving ice diamonds.

And why is it so hard to make a diamond?

Personally, I don’t think it’s very difficult at all, but it’s ice, you have to carve it quickly, but I’ve been teaching many colleagues and bartenders and seminars and presentations. Some do in a different way, using chopsticks, but I do hold ice carving to the end, I’m not 100% sure why people find it so hard to make.

And how many diamonds do you make in a week in the High 5 bar?

Right now, we do by request, so not much. But when I used to work in the Star Bar, the on the rocks drink is all diamonds, so I used to make 30-40 a day for nine years.

That’s a lot of diamonds, man. That’s a whole lot of diamonds.

Yes! We store ice balls in freezer, and we store the equal square block of ice, and I carve the diamond in front of the customer, one by one.

I don’t really do any other things. I think once it made like a lovely heart, but it won’t stay in the right position. So I’m still working only on diamonds.

Is the diamond the same size every time?

Yeah, because we have certain glassware I present them in. So it has to be always the same size.

Right. Now, do you only serve whiskey with the diamond, or do you serve cocktails with the diamond?

I usually serve only whiskey on the rock or a spirit, or basically, with spirits on the rocks. But if they really want to have a diamond in cocktails, I suggested no citrus cocktails as it makes the drink cloudy. But like a Manhattan or Martini to make liquid shiny and beautiful.

You’re here in Australia with the Monin team and you’re going to do two presentations of ice carving with Monin as a cocktail ingredient. What is it about Monin that you particularly like?

First, I like that the ingredients are very consistent, the taste and the flavours. I’m Japanese, I don’t like to waste, and you won’t get bottle stand a long time, and of course the quality it’s always the same. And it’s very useful to add volume, what I mean by that is mouthfeel. So, I prefer to use more amount for many different cocktails so I can add volume to the cocktail in terms of mouthfeel and of course the flavour and colour.

Can you give any advice for bartenders that want to start ice carving?

Okay. If you’re interested in carving ice, first you need to be careful about the fingers and sometimes you cut the fingers and this can pose difficulties for working. There’s a lot of ways to make customer impressed by you or happy and ice carving has a lot of potential to attract customers. So, for now, in my place, I myself, I’m known by grand shapes so everyone expects and asks you to carve a diamond for them. I do now the finishing in front of customers. It took a little while but people love it.




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Hidetsugu Ueno




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