Gastronomer Lifestyle_Getting Creative with Kei Sawada

Getting Creative With Bartender Kei Sawada

Written by Mika Apichatsakol

“The Japanese Issue”, August-September 2023 

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Born in Tokushima Prefecture in Japan, Kei Sawada initially wanted to be a newspaper reporter, moving to Osaka for university to major in sociology. Going to school and working part-time at a TV station during the day, he further filled his time at night bartending. At the time, as many youngsters do, Kei longed for foreign experiences. He started travelling, beginning with Southeast Asia, and then went to study abroad in Canada, learning English and gaining more bar experience along the way. After that, he toured South America for a year, returned to Japan to graduate, and later found work in Thailand and Australia.

In 2017, Kei moved back to Thailand, joining Japanese alcohol supplier Bacchus Global to open their bar project, Salon Du Japonisant, on Sukhumvit 39. It was at this point that Kei started seriously immersing himself into the art of mixology, wanting to do right by the bar’s distinct Japanese cocktail concept. Under his leadership, Salon Du Japonisant was for a time recognised as the best cocktail bar in Bangkok.

Fast-forward to this year, Kei is amid launching his own restaurant and bar, Frog, which is due to open its doors to the public in September. We catch up with the busy bartender to talk about local bar scenes in Japan and Thailand as well as his idea of “Japanese-style creative cocktails”.

Q: What inspired you to pursue bartending as a profession?

A: For me, the charm of being a supporting player is the most interesting thing about being a bartender. Alcohol can be poisonous at times, and there are many reasons why people come to the bar. I like to watch it all like a side show. The cocktail and liquor collection is a tool for me to maximise the customer’s relaxation and create customer satisfaction. When the atmosphere of the bar is filled with joy by fully utilising my knowledge and skills as well as my humanity, I feel happy to be doing this job.

 Q: Can you tell our readers about the bartending scene in Japan? How is it unique from the rest of the world?

A: First of all, there are some differences between Japanese bartenders and their Western counterparts. While Westerners tend to focus more on the results, I would say that Japanese bartenders focus more on the process. We have our “ceremonial manners” of doing things, as seen in our traditions such as tea ceremony and flower arrangement. Because of our roots, Japanese bartenders tend to showcase more ritualistic movements when making cocktails.

The culture of Japanese cuisine also has a major influence on our mixology. As seen in sushi and other types of Japanese cuisine, Japanese people prefer simple and seasonal dishes. A great deal of value is placed on the ingredients, or in the case of mixology, the quality of alcohol. With this in mind, there is a growing trend in Japan to focus more on domestic products and ingredients, as well as seasonality.

Q: What do you think about Bangkok’s bartending scene?

A: I have been involved in this industry in Bangkok for about seven years now, and the pace of change is dizzying. There is also now widespread exchange between various bars and creators in Asia, which makes it possible to have an international cocktail experience somewhere, every day. I believe this stimulates not only young bartenders but also many local bartenders, to lead the revitalisation and the growth of the market.

The unique character of the city of Bangkok, mixed with the various talents and skills of its DJs and designers, has also evolved the simple bar business into a vibrant nightlife and entertainment culture. While the environment is still not favourable for business owners, with restrictions on alcohol sales and difficulty for small-scale alcohol manufacturers, despite these setbacks, Thailand’s bar scene is still able to show so much potential.

Q: Tell me about your upcoming project, Frog.

A: The concept of the restaurant is “naturalism” with a cocktail bar that serves drinks expressive of nature. The “frog” has two meanings. One represents a guide to another world. In Japanese culture, frogs are considered the hermits’ messengers, like in the anime Naruto. The frog is a symbol of our wish to be a place where people can escape from their daily lives. The other frog is a creature that symbolises nature. We aim to create a relaxed environment where you can simply enjoy conversation, food, and drinks.

Q: Can you explain to our readers what “Japanese-style creative cocktails” are?

A: In the past, a Japanese cocktail was considered to be one that used Japanese ingredients and liquors. Nowadays, however, Japanese ingredients and products are incorporated into recipes all the time. This makes it hard to call cocktails with Japanese ingredients Japanese cocktails anymore. So I use the term “Japanese-style creative cocktail” to refer to more localised cocktails that use lesser-known Japanese products and incorporate Japanese technical bartending style and culture, such as tea ceremony or flower arrangement.

 Q: Are there any traditional Japanese ingredients, techniques, flavours, or spirits that you like to incorporate into your cocktails?

A: I am actively using shochu. Although it is not as big in Thailand yet, I feel like Japanese shochu is so interesting and evolving every day. It’s got a distinctive odour and is now being produced with a variety of unique characteristics.
Japan is also a very unique country in terms of tea, flowers, and other herbs. Shiso and matcha are already widely recognised, but there are still many other Japanese teas and flowers with strong personalities that I like to embrace.

Q: How do you approach the art of presentation in your cocktails?

A: In the past, I used to complicate the process of making cocktails by trying to make it a production or a presentation of tricks upon serving them to customers. However, recently, I am more focused on sublimation through the cocktail and garnish itself. I would like to create a world in which people can enjoy cocktails more by exploring the best garnish or combinations above the standard.

Q: How do you approach service? 

A: My concept of customer service is a blend of Japanese and Western styles. Basic service operations and details are done in a meticulous Japanese fashion, however, conversations are as friendly as possible—family-like. This is my ideal customer service style. After all, delicious cocktails and beautiful interior design are not enough to keep customers coming, so I place great importance on customer service that makes people remember you.

Q: Do you have a favourite signature cocktail of yours that you can share with our readers?

A: It’s called “Midnight Cruise”, made with The Botanist Gin, a homemade green tea sake vermouth, elderflower reduction, yuzu juice, and bamboo charcoal. I prefer the gimlet among classic cocktails, and this is a twist on it and the only cocktail I have named after myself. This cocktail represents the way Japanese people wander around at night in search of women, with the bamboo charcoal representing the night, the flowers women, and yuzu Japanese people.

Q: What are some of your favourite Japanese dining or drinking spots in Bangkok?

A: For dining, some of my favourites are Sobakiri Gonoji, Torisawa 22, Fatboy Izakaya, and Izakaya Yakan. For drinking, Bar Vagabond and Salon du Japonisant.

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