Well-crafted victory

Michito Kaneko is the winner of World Class 2015 after a hard-fought Global Final in Cape Town, South Africa. But what is the man really like and how did he pull off his victory? We delve into the background and motivation of the world’s best bartender.

Awesome, beautiful, very Japanese.

It was a simple warehouse in Cape Town, transformed into a festival of colour and sound with six pop-up bars.

The final six bartenders had arrived at the last challenge of World Class, after days of intense judging, with the barely believable requirement to deliver a pop up bar with a theme and drink, complete with décor and service, in 24 hours. In one day, they had to open a venue with the help of events specialist Sweet & Chilli and design company TBA.

Israeli competitor Ariel Leizgold caught the eye with a stunning Alice in Wonderland theme as battery-operated humming birds buzzed around his bar.

But there was a minimalist, subtle room in one corner, featuring suitcases, Johnnie Walker wallpaper, a sake box on the bar, maps, treasure chests and light wood detailing. Judges walked towards the bar and as they did so, Michito Kaneko opened the box to reveal a foaming white punch and dropped a single red dot in the middle to make the drink resemble a Japanese flag.

Michito had themed his bar around ‘the travelling bartender’, with an imagined journey from his native Japan to Scotland to create the punch, and back again. It linked to the Striding Man theme of Johnnie Walker, the fact his name Michito means ‘Man on the Road’, the internationalism of World Class, and the lifestyle of many of the best bartenders today. They travel a lot, spreading the word about great bartending. According to judge Julie Reiner, Michito’s pop-up was “awesome, beautiful, very Japanese”.

However, there was more to Michito’s victory than this one Challenge. For that we have to delve a little further back, beyond World Class 2015.

Michito comes from a family of ceramic makers in the mountain city of Nara, southern Japan. It’s why his bartending is “rooted in craftsmanship and precision,” according to World Class judge and global ambassador Spike Marchant.

Ceramics to bartending isn’t a natural career path. But in fact Michito was a 20-year-old construction worker when a friend invited him to a bar in the city. He loved what he saw in bartending – in fact so much so that he quit his job and a month later was working at the venue.

Then three years later Michito took his next big step. He had been building up to owning his own place, discovering a building in Nara’s Prefecture Tsunofuri-cho region, a historic part of the city complete with temples and artwork dating back to the 8th century.

After a lot of work transforming the space, he finally opened ‘Lamp Bar’ with capacity for a limited number of customers so that he could concentrate on carefully crafted cocktails – and his reputation has spread.

Luckily Michito didn’t leave his ability to make a great cocktail in Asia. “Michito really stepped up on the first evening,” says Spike. “He was fluent, articulate and very precise. Everything is so carefully calibrated with Michito.”

Despite delivering through an interpreter, Michito’s “considerable warmth, charm and presence” became apparent, according to Spike.

However Michito then came to the food pairing Street Food Jam Challenge. It’s hard to make a cocktail that stands out at this point – bartenders are more concerned with creating a drink that fits in with the accompanying dishes. This year, with specialist South African meat and fish dishes to pair with, it looked particularly difficult for a Japanese competitor.

But Michito created a cocktail that looked and tasted like red wine – regarded as the ultimate food pairing liquid. Dave Broom was judging the session with Michito’s drinks. “He was dealing with Steve Olson, Telis Papadopoulos and myself – three wine geeks. So he had to get it right. And he nailed it.”

Next was ‘Retro, Disco, Future’, a part of the competition that requires three cocktails to be created in the style of three different periods – not easy to get right while also fulfilling the competition requirement that as a bartender you are ‘having as much fun as you can’! Michito won the challenge.

However, most crucially of all, he didn’t slip up at any point during the week. “The key to where he ended up was consistency,” says Spike. “You can’t win World Class in any one challenge, but you can certainly lose it. He was always up there. His lowest ranking in the first round challenges was 14th.

“Michito is not the first Japanese winner of World Class. Manabu Ohtake took the title in 2011. But he’s very different from Manabu in that he’s not as theatrical or flamboyant”.

In fact Michito’s extroversion comes out in the cocktails he creates. “Michito delivers beautiful service, but you take that as a given for Japanese bartenders,” adds Dave Broom. “Thinking outside the box is trickier for them. But Michito has exemplary technique combined with a more open mind about what else is going on in the world, what is happening with flavour, which is remarkable.”

He also prepared a lot. “Before the competition, it was necessary to practice and study and think about ways to improve my skills,” declares Michito. “During the competition, World Class demanded the best from each competitor. It put everyone under extreme pressure.”

Thanks to applying the kind of precision his grandfather might have taken when crafting a ceramic piece, Michito delivered when it mattered.

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