Tools of the Trade

Japanese Barware Ingenuity Comes to Oakland


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     Until recently, East Bay bartenders and mixologists fixated on Japanese bar paraphernalia had to order their mixing glasses and barspoons over the Internet. But now bartenders from venues such as The New Easy, Make Westing and Haven can pop into Umami Mart, a store specializing in Japanese barware, to check out the merchandise in person and pick up supplies.
     Opened this summer at Eighth and Broadway, Umami Mart was founded by Yoko Kumano and Kayoko Akabori, high school friends from Cupertino who are familiar with American bartenders’ obsession with all things Japanese. They began Umami Mart as a blog about Japanese cuisine, then launched an online store and now have set up the brick-and-mortar shop. Initially, barware was a small part of their business, but it has grown to become a majority of sales. That barware includes elegant mixing glasses, comically long barspoons, tiny bitters bottles, gold cocktail shakers, ice picks and other accoutrements.
     “There’s a spark of interest with serious bartenders and mixologists in the cocktail culture of Japan,” says Akabori. “I think there is a lot to explore in Japanese drink culture, and we’re trying to open the doors for people to explore Japanese drinks in general—shochu, sake, Japanese whiskey—and drinkware.”
     This isn’t just exoticism, the smitten bartenders say; turns out they believe the best bar tools (not to mention the most stylish ones) come from Japan. So, too, does some of the world’s best whiskey. Little of it makes it to the United States (for now, only the brands Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki are widely available), but the Japanese have been making whiskey since 1924, and it’s truly wonderful stuff. You’ll find it sold in many local eateries, from the traditional Japanese restaurant Ippuku in Berkeley (where it is used in whiskey highballs) to Berkeley’s divey Acme Bar.
     Other bartenders of late have taken up the Japanese craze of hand-carved ice. At bars like Emeryville’s Prizefighter, whiskey and some cocktails are served over a giant, clear, hand-carved ice block or sphere. Now even amateur mixologists are getting into the act. Akabori says one of the top-selling items at Umami Mart is an ice-cube tray that produces those same large spheres, no ice pick required.


Umami Mart, 815 Broadway, 510-575-9152, www.umamimart.com

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