The Cocktail Lovers Magazine Issue 49

ISSUE 49

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The art of ikebana: aesthetics and beauty with The House of Suntory DOJO programme

ByThe Cocktail Lovers

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“The Japanese approach to bartending is unlike anything else. From the laser focus on detail, to embracing omotenashi (wholeheartedly looking after guests) and monozukuri (craftsmanship and striving towards perfection), the collective approach elevates bartending to an art form. Through the DOJO programme, we hope to bring these principles to the fore, and help bartenders enhance their repertoires as well as being able to offer unparalleled drink and hospitality experiences for their customers.”

Raffaele di Monaco, UK Brand Ambassador for House of Suntory
Raffaele Di Monaco, The House of Suntory UK Brand Ambassador

Bartenders of today are lucky so-and-sos. The thought, care and consideration that goes into our favourite advocacy platform is second to none. Or put another way, they’re definitely the kind of immersive education that we would want to get involved with. 

With its portfolio of pioneering spirits – Yamazaki, Hakushu, Chita and Hibiki – and craftsmanship of Toki Whisky, Roku Gin and Haku Vodka, The House of Suntory imparts its rich knowledge and expertise to its DOJO advocacy programme, inspired by Japanese nature and mastered with Japanese craft. As a perfect example of best-in-class advocacy, the House of Suntory remains committed to honouring Japanese heritage and culture. 

For the past three years, the core principles of The House of Suntory – Wa, Monozukuri and Omotenashi – have transcended every element of the DOJO programme, bringing these principles to life by sparking creativity, curiosity, and craftsmanship through a series of meticulously devised masterclasses. And when we say meticulously devised, we mean it. 

Those who were lucky enough to secure a spot in the highly sought-after sessions have received hands-on experience and skill-enhancing insights from dedicated Masters in the ancient Japanese arts of flower arranging, sushi making, blending flavours and other revered Japanese disciplines. As specialists in their respective fields, these masters were specially chosen to help teach bartenders first hand the meticulous elements of detail in their chosen Japanese craft – enriching the DOJO programme by using culturally immersive sessions to draw learnings from Japanese crafts and instil new ways of thinking when it comes to hospitality and bartending practices. 

Bartenders in attendance at the Ikebana & Aesthetics Masterclass in Manchester

Much like the concept of continual improvement or Kaizen from which the masterclasses take inspiration, this year the DOJO programme has upped the ante and expanded its reach to engage more bartenders than ever before. “In total, we’ve hosted sessions for 100 bartenders which is twice as many that previous years,” reveals Raffaele Di Monaco, The House of Suntory UK Ambassador. Like most things on this programme, that number is no coincidence. “It also links very nicely with The House of Suntory’s centennial celebration this year which celebrates the opening of Yamazaki distillery in 1923,” he informs.

The House of Suntory celebrates its centenary this year

To reach more bartenders, the DOJO programme has spread its wings, implementing sessions in three central hospitality hubs across the UK. “We started in London, then Manchester and after Edinburgh,” he says.

What did they get up to? We chatted to Raff to get the lowdown on the recent Ikebana & Aesthetics Masterclass.

Before we get to the why’s of ikebana and its place on programme, can you tell us what the reaction been to you taking the DOJO programme on the road?

The feedback has been incredible. We’ve engaged some great bars and incredibly talented bartenders – they’ve been so appreciative of the fact that we’ve gone to them, rather than having everything in London. There are so many wonderful bars around the country, and we wanted to make sure that everyone gets an understanding of what DOJO is and how it can be implemented in their own bars across the whole of the UK.

Ikebana Master, Keiko Smith

Great stuff. So tell us about ikebana and how it fits into the programme?

In Japan, Ikebana comes out as one of the top crafts. Despite what may seem a simple craft, it is very insightful when learning about Japanese culture. The reason we integrate it into DOJO is because Ikebana stands for beauty and the aesthetics of Japan which is something that can quite easily be applied in cocktail making

Putting newfound learnings into practice at Japan House, London

As in garnishes?

When we talk about aesthetics in cocktail making, it’s not just the garnish that you put at the top of the glass, it’s also about the type of glass you use, the colour of the liquid in the glass – Ikebana requires you to think about everything. This also includes your guests sitting in front of you at the bar – even the way you make that drink somehow adds a beauty and aesthetic to the experience.

When did you personally become aware of ikebana? 

The first time I encountered the intricacies of Ikebana was by reading about Japanese craftsmanship a few years ago. Once you understand the principle of Ikebana, you can apply this skill to cocktails, either at home or in the bar. I find it a very soothing practice as well – it’s very meditative and one of the most easily applicable arts that you can learn from Japanese culture.

Seasonal flowers are integral to ikebana

How is the session structured within the DOJO programme?

We start with a tasting of Roku Gin. The fact that Roku is made up of six Japanese botanicals, which are distilled as soon as they’re harvested, is very much in keeping with the principles of Ikebana because the focus is on seasonality; only seasonal flowers are used in the decoration, so they always look their best.

We taste each component of Roku so we get a chance to appreciate the sakura, yuzu, sancho pepper and tea distillates that goes into the gin. I then introduce the concept of aesthetic and beauty in Japan and how it’s applicable in Ikebana and Kado art, but also bartending. Then our Ikebana Master, Keiko Smith, takes over and talks the bartenders through the art of Ikebana before they get to have a go at it for themselves. Everyone is given a vase and pins, and they can take their pick of seasonal flowers and make their own Ikebana creation under Keiko’s supervision.

What are the basic principles of ikebana?

Keiko Smith, our Ikebana Master, explains the three pillars of Ikebana – the fact that it’s not just about how many flowers you put in a vase, it’s about harmony in look and beauty, but also how you can create harmony in certain colours as well. Each Ikebana display should be curated using the following three pillars: the shin (the highest part), the soe (the middle part) and hikae (the smaller part) – with each representing the universe, the heart and the people respectively. Keiko tells the bartenders how these three elements represent harmony within life, as well as how and why the flowers have to be positioned in a certain way to achieve a perfect balance. Viewed from the top, they need to form a triangle. 

DOJO’s Ikebana Aesthetics Master bringing the three pillars of ikebana to life
 

How can ikebana be incorporated into the day-to-day role of the bartender?

First impressions are very important because essentially, we drink with our eyes. The look of the drink for me is almost as important as the flavour – if it doesn’t look right, it can spoil the entire experience. 

You’ll have noticed that the minimal approach to garnishes is quite trendy at the moment. But the Japanese have never gone down the route of over-garnishing their drinks. In their culture, it’s always been about the quality of ice, the quality of glassware and the small details about the drinks that elevate the drinking experience. Ikebana gives a better understanding and appreciation of this concept. And, as I mentioned previously, minimalism isn’t just about not having a garnish on your drink but thinking about everything around it.

Soothing, meditative, focused – the art of ikebana

Josh Black, one of our winners from last year, did that to good effect with his presentation of a Sazerac. He served it alongside a tiny bottle of water to add dilution to the drink, but also added an Oshibori towel to the presentation as a way of adding a visual element – as well as a hospitality element – to the experience. It was a small, seemingly simple touch which made a huge impact. That captured the concept of Ikebana perfectly.

What’s your favourite part of the ikebana masterclasses?

Ikebana is almost like meditation in the way you have to concentrate on the details and arrangement closely. When I see a room full of bartenders in silence, being extremely focused on picking up flowers, choosing the colours, cutting the branches to the right height – it’s extremely rewarding. It’s the same level of attention to details you need when you’re creating drinks – you want to refine the serve, you want the aesthetic to be perfect, you want to make the best drinks that you possibly can

The second part of The House of Suntory DOJO Programme – Monozukuru Masterclass Tours took place in September, featuring
Dashi & Blending
(highlighting the art of blending flavours and aromas, and a tasting of the blending components of Toki)

Chado and Hospitality
(focusing on Japanese hospitality, explored via the traditional Tea Ceremony, and a tasting of Hibiki)

For more details on the House of Suntory, see suntorydojo.com 

Please drink the House of Suntory products responsibly

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The Cocktail Lovers

The Cocktail Lovers are Mr G and Ms S, a man and a woman who share a passion for cocktails. (We also happen to be married, so we’re cocktail lovers in more ways than one…)

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The Cocktail Lovers Magazine Issue 49
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The Cocktail Lovers Magazine Issue 49
The Cocktail Lovers Magazine Issue 49

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