Devised by the House of Suntory’s Brand Ambassador James Bowker, every element of House of Suntory’s DOJO programme has been conceived with personal progression and creating better guest experiences in mind, inspired by the art of Japanese Bartending.
“I’d come across Japanese whisky before, but the first time I had an insight into the art of Japanese bartending was through a training session with Mate Csatlos,” James explains. “He’d spent time in Japan where he’d learned the principles and techniques such as the hard shake and ice carving and I remember watching him work with such elegance and precision,” he recalls.
“His focus was on making sure that every element of what he was doing was done to the nth possible degree – even if the guest would never realise the difference. What struck me was that he had this complete sense of calm on his face as he was bartending. That was so alien to the background I’d come from which had been high volume cocktail bars where you had to move as fast as possible. Watching him bartend at that speed with such efficiency, but with a complete sense of Zen was a revelation. He wasn’t Japanese, we weren’t in Japan, but he had learned from a Japanese master. And that was when I was like, ‘Okay, there’s something in this – it’s something very special’.”
That was around 10 years ago. Since then, James has immersed himself in all aspects of the craft which has not just impacted his bartending style and his work as House of Suntory’s Brand Ambassador, but his personal life as well. “Here in the West, we have a very results-oriented way of looking at life, whereas in a lot of Eastern cultures, it’s about becoming present and deriving pleasure from each moment,” he tells us.
How so? For instance, when you’re bartending, it’s not just about whether you can make the most cocktails as quickly as possible, but rather ‘let’s enjoy every step of the process; let’s enjoy how we’re stirring, treating each time we stir as a moment to improve ourselves’,” he offers. “On a personal level, it’s the attention-to-detail in everything I do, realising how much every detail matters. I always try to dress quite sharply when I go to events in the community. I’m also hyper-aware of my body language and that I hold eye contact a lot longer than other people. That’s because I’ve become informed through Japanese culture and how important all these details are – both in the way in which people experience being with me and the value of our friendships.
Raising the bar
“But even more deeply than that, it’s the mindfulness; having this presence and awareness at every stage and trying not to let the chatter and confusion that enters our minds distract me from being in that moment. It’s helped my hospitality immensely and has shaped the foundations on which the DOJO programme was created”.
For instance, with The House of Suntory’s DOJO programme, continues James: “Whilst cocktail competitions are fabulous, there are a quite a lot of them and bartenders are becoming a little bit world weary,” he says. Instead, James has curated an amazing programme designed to seriously raise the game of everyone taking part – whatever stage they are at in their careers – and with an optional competitive element.
“The DOJO programme is about giving these incredible professionals in our industry the opportunity to be authentically immersed in a culture that so many of us draw such great inspiration from,” he enthuses. “It’s an opportunity to learn those extra elements of detail in the craft, where Japan as a culture will always be so obsessed with these details. Let’s learn from the bartenders and masters in Japan, but let’s also learn more broadly about Japanese culture and how these philosophies, ways of viewing life, work and creativity can inspire new ways of thinking about hospitality and bartending more generally.”
Given the meaning, calling the programme ‘DOJO’ is very apt but before we get on to what’s in store this year, can you describe the three pillars of House of Suntory and how you’ve incorporated them into the programme?
Of course! The first is Wa which means harmony with nature. It’s true to the core philosophy of Japan, where we find incredible inspiration from just being present in the moment. It’s that idea of the balance between absolute complexity and harmony.
The second is Monozukuri, the traditional approach to craftsmanship that we see in Japanese culture, which is that idea of first trying to master something – learning from the predecessors, the masters and then taking a very humble approach to how you might refine things, but knowing that you never stop refining.
People talk about the Japanese being perfectionists, but that’s because they’re constantly pursuing refinement rather than stopping once they think this has been attained. The sense of what is perfect is constantly changing. There’s never a polished recipe or a finished way of doing things in Japan because in its culture, there is no sense of complete perfection – there is always room to improve.
And the third is Omotenashi which is the traditional sense of Japanese hospitality. At the end of the day, Japanese culture is quite unique, and we know that people all over the world want to experience it. Yet not everyone of course has the opportunity to go and visit Japan. So, what we’re trying to do is create spirits that give authentic flavours of Japan – that delicate complexity and balance that’s expected from Japanese flavour, then create an authentic experience that is true to the Japanese focus on detail.
There are two parts to the programme: DOJO Academy and DOJO Senpai, can you tell us about them?
The thing about this idea of constantly evolving and improving is that if you only have one level of education, when you’ve done it once, where do you go from there? With this in mind, we wanted to make sure that there are multiple tiers to the DOJO programme that give people an ability to come in at the level that is appropriate for them and to their relationship with Japanese spirits.
We actually have three tiers for this year’s DOJO programme. The website will also include educational content this year, so this is a chance for anyone who wants to get a basic understanding of Japanese culture and bartending to visit to get a taster. The next tier is the DOJO Academy where bartenders are recommended by their managers, or indeed, can register their interest personally through our website, and we select people who have demonstrated a real passion for Japanese culture to come in for two full-day training sessions, where we cover the four modules.
And then finally, the Senpai, which is invitation only. This occurs largely as a result of us visiting some of the best hospitality venues in the UK, and identifying either individuals or venues that really have a focus on wanting to master Japanese hospitality. We are looking to see something different in individuals, and evidence in venues of them championing Japanese culture. We then offer them to join us for a much more intensive programme.
This is the third year of the programme and the first time that all the sessions will be IRL, what’s on the agenda?
For the four primary modules, we’ll be focusing on each of our four main brands, Roku gin, Haku vodka and Toki and Hibiki whiskies and tying them to a specific traditional Japanese craft.
Ikebana and Aesthetics – A masterclass spotlighting the art of Ikebana flower arranging and how to adapt it to cocktail garnishing, focused on Japanese aesthetics and beauty. The session also includes a Roku tasting.
This was incredibly successful last year, and we’re refining it a little further this year so a different group of people will learn the principles.
Sushi and Seasoning – A masterclass on balance and seasoning, including a Haku tasting.
This takes in the idea of using ingredients as seasonings. For example, we often see cocktails that might have seven or eight ingredients listed on the menu – that’s incredibly confusing and you’re not sure what the main flavour is. I was at a bar the other evening and they had a wonderful cocktail on the menu with gin, mango, some other fruit and yogurt, but I wasn’t sure if it was yogurt with a hint of mango, or gin with a subtle mango yogurt? How did these flavours match up? What we’re trying to get across in this masterclass is that you can have primary flavours and seasonings and those seasonings should be described in a different way. They’re there to harmonise the main flavours and achieve the optimal balance. For instance, if I went to a restaurant and ordered a steak with a red wine jus, that jus might contain 10 or 12 different herbs, but I’m not expected to know what they are.
Chado and Hospitality – A masterclass in Japanese hospitality, explored via the traditional Tea Ceremony, including an in-depth tasting of Hibiki.
We’re really excited to be working with Tea Masters in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, to understand all of the elements within hospitality that we don’t always think about. So, things like body language and the sounds that we make whilst making tea or cocktails. When you’re in a bar in Japan, they never start shaking hard. They gently build up instead, then move into a powerful shake before gently reducing the intensity. That’s because they don’t want anyone to be sitting there having a lovely Martini while being jolted by a sudden, loud sound. It’s these seemingly little things that influence the way we experience hospitality, and that’s what we’ll be exploring during this Masterclass.
Kaiseki and Psychology – A masterclass teaching the skills and techniques behind traditional multi-course Japanese dining. The session will also include a tasting of the blending components of Toki.
And finally, we’ve got a brand-new masterclass where we’ve collaborated with a flavour psychologist to understand the contemporary insights, we can take from modern psychology to influence the guests experience of flavour. Interestingly, it’s not just what is in the glass that will impact their sense of flavour, but aromas in your venue, the colours they’re seeing or even the shape of glass – all of these things are subconsciously constructed in your mind before you even take a sip.
And if all of that knowledge wasn’t enough, we also hear that you’ll be selecting two bartenders to go to Tokyo. How does that part work?
That’s something we started last year. Whilst DOJO is an education platform first and foremost and will never be a cocktail competition, we know that bartenders are practically minded people who like to get their hands dirty. We want to give participating bartenders the opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned and show how moments of challenging themselves can be rewarded for adhering to the core principles.
So, we’re taking the concept of Kaizen – the idea of constant improvement that’s part of the Monozukuri craftsmanship – and asking each bartender to select a classic cocktail at the beginning of the programme. Following each of the masterclasses, they’ll be set a challenge to apply what they’ve learned in the session, be it sushi or ikebana, to refine their classic cocktail throughout the programme: creating a Kaizen Classic.”
The real trick to it is, if our judge isn’t able to identify what your classic is, you have failed the challenge. For example, if you’ve chosen an Old Fashioned as your signature cocktail and suddenly there’s a fermented mango syrup in there, that might be a fermented mango Old Fashioned, but it’s not an Old Fashioned. We’re looking to make the best version of a classic, not reinvent it.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
The thing that I find most humbling about the DOJO programme is the community that we build. Honestly, all the people that have been through the Senpai in the past couple of years are now genuinely close friends that I see on a regular basis. I also love the fact that we’re bringing people together. Having that opportunity to come together in a space where there’s no outside pressure means they’re not competing against each other – there’s no feistiness or egos at play. Instead, we’ve focused on building a community that’s all about their wellbeing, where they’re mindful, present, and happy. Because if you’re stressed, you’re not learning.
And what can we expect going forward?
I think we can expect Japanese culture to become more mainstream within the consumer mindset, and therefore it’s so important that we as an industry understand what that means for us – learning about the deeper sense of Japanese culture so that we can communicate that effectively to our guests.
But it’s also that renewed recognition of the importance of mastering our craft – understanding why we shake or stir things a particular way, why the shape and style of the ice matters. It’s all about the details.