It seems fitting that Sabine Delettre Nakamura runs the second highest bar in the world. Her career trajectory has been nothing short of ascendant. Before becoming head bartender at Bangkok’s lebua No. 3, which resides on the 52nd floor of the majestic hotel of the same name (yes, the one at the center of the second “Hangover” franchise), she was the first female bartender at the Palace Hotel Toyko’s Royal Bar. Before that, she carved a path for herself in hospitality that began in France and was inspired by perfume, her French and Japanese heritage, and her greatest muse, her artist mother. Here, Nakamura talks about all three and how they influence her approach to cocktails.
Tell me a little bit about your roots.
I’m a native of Normandy. I grew up in the dark and stormy region of France where Impressionism was born.
At the Palace Hotel Tokyo, you became the hotel’s first female bartender. What were some of the challenges you faced?
I started as an intern at Royal Bar in 2014. After graduating hospitality school in Paris, I came back in 2015. I told the F&B director that I had some basic bartending experience, which was not at all the case. He said he would think about it. The process of giving me a simple yes or no took nearly a month, as I later found out there were many complications with giving me the position: the fact that I was a woman, only half Japanese and, at 19, extremely young.
One of the biggest challenges was to learn all of the classic cocktails from a league of the best Japanese bartenders.The second was to win the approval of the many regular customers of this legendary bar, one of whom had been attending the venue for 50 years. In my first two years of working there, he came every night to try my (terrible) Martini and help me improve my skills. This customer is the first person I ever made a cocktail for, and his was the last drink I made at Royal Bar. On my final day, he told me, “Yes, your Martini is good. I can drink it entirely.”
The following year, you were selected in the semifinals of the Diageo World Class competition in Japan. What drink did you create that got the judges’ attention?
It was called the Baron Rouge. It incorporated Johnnie Walker Gold Label scotch and beetroot syrup, which became my signature ingredient. Knowing how much first impressions count, I already had an idea of the visual impact I wanted my signature drink to have, starting with a seductive blood red color. For two weeks, I played around with different ingredients and flavors, mostly influenced by my French background. I wanted to involve beetroot, which is a staple ingredient in France and shocks with its glamorous color while providing a delightful sweetness. In the end, I created a cocktail with all the ingredients and spices I love—cinnamon, ginger and beetroot.
How did you come to work in Bangkok at lebua?
The hotel contacted me while I was living in Australia in 2017. At the time, I was committed to other projects, but then in August 2018, they contacted me again for a position as head bartender for the opening of lebua No. 3. It was an enormous challenge to create cocktails as amazing as the view, but I don’t like places that rely on atmosphere at the sacrifice of a well-composed drink. The bar itself specializes in gin, vodka and caviar, but I’ve based the drinks menu on the bounty of unusual spices and exotic fruits abundant in Thailand.
I wanted to create a bar where people would come for the quality of my creations and the hospitality of my team.
Another of your passions is the art of perfumery. How does this manifest itself in your cocktails?
I made a cocktail when I was living in Australia called Aruku Samouraï [Walking Samourai] for the Australlia World Class competition, incorporating hinoki, which is a Japanese wood used in temples. The scent always reminds me of Japan and my childhood, when my mother led me through the enchanting traditional temples in Kyoto.
How did your parents meet?
My mother had to go to Paris for a conference, but before returning to Japan, she wanted to visit Normandy, the birthplace of impressionism, which greatly inspired her painting. The hotel called a taxi for her, and her chauffeur was my young father. He fell in love with her instantly. He drove her all around Normandy for free that day. My father had married young and was still married when he met my mother. At the end of the day, they exchanged polite goodbyes, and my mother took her flight back to Japan.
He thought he’d lost the love of his life and didn’t have any way to contact my mother. The only memory of her was her perfume, “Poison” by Christian Dior, my favorite perfume ever. A month or two later, my dad received a letter from my mother. She had kept the business card of the taxi society my father was working for. They wrote to each other every day for two years. After maintaining their friendship over these letters for so long, my father came to realize that my mother was the only one for him.
Did your parents have an influence on your career in hospitality?
Definitely. My mother is an artist and paints under the name Haruko, meaning “enfant de printemps” in French [“child of spring” in English]. Her creativity had a large impact on me throughout my childhood. It’s part of how I see my cocktails, like paint. I play with flavors the way mother experimented with colors to create just the right shade to place on the canvas.
You celebrate women as part of the essence of your cocktails, especially with your Tentadora, a darling of the Japan final at the Bacardí Legacy competition. Tell me about that.
The name translates to “temptress” in Spanish. For inspiration, I took Doña Amalia Bacardí, the wife of Don Facundo Bacardí. I wanted to interpret her strong and powerful character while creating a cocktail for all of the women who inspire me everyday: my mother and all the wonderful female bartenders who have supported me from the first day I decided to become a bartender.
I used Bacardí Ocho rum as a base spirit, fresh beetroot juice, two dashes of fresh ginger juice, a pinch of cinnamon powder, some sugar syrup and fresh lemon juice to balance everything. The beautiful red velvet color is symbolic of the power within every woman.