Behind the Bar Snap Shot

One of the World's Largest Japanese Whisky Collections. In One Surprising Bar.

Katie June Burton

Clad with an esteemed New York sushi chef, a kaiseki-inspired tasting menu studded with golden osetra hand rolls, and one of the world’s most comprehensive Japanese whisky collections, Uchu, which means “universe” in Japanese, might be Manhattan’s most ambitious new project.

Conceived by Sushi on Jones founder Derek Feldman and designed by architect Scott Kester, this intimate 1,000-square-foot Japanese restaurant and bar lands on a rather quiet and unassuming stretch of Eldridge Street between Stanton and Rivington Streets. And to helm the multi-concepted Lower East Side space, Feldman brought on a team of heavy hitters. Local sushi legend Eiji Ichimura (formerly of Brushstroke’s two-Michelin-star fish counter) heads up Uchu’s sushi omakase.

Meanwhile, Sam Clonts of three-Michelin-star Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare orchestrates the restaurant’s 11-course tasting menu, which he serves at the same eight-seat cocktail counter that’s presided over by Frank Cisneros, previously responsible for the expert Japanese drams at Karasu in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene. And it’s here where Cisneros proffers pricey pours of liquid Japanese gold.

While many will flock to Uchu for Ichimura’s curiously aged fish and Clonts’ generous gift of uni, Uchu’s most unique attribute just might be its cocktail bar.

With a museum of expensive glassware, kaiseki-inspired libations that involve an edible element, and an absurdly inclusive Japanese whisky collection, Uchu’s bar presents a wholly new imbibing experience modeled after the upscale cocktail haunts that offer respite to the salarymen in Tokyo’s posh Ginza neighborhood.

Frank Cisneros making the Oak cocktail.

“Real Tokyo Ginza bars are always supposed to be eight seats,” says Cisneros of the high-end cocktail haunts, like Star Bar and Bar Orchard, that populate Ginza, an affluent area that’s somewhat comparable to New York’s Upper East Side.

In the winter of 2014, Cisneros accepted an offer from Mandarin Oriental Tokyo to relocate to Japan for a year and teach the property’s onsite bartenders about progressive American cocktailing. In doing so, he had the opportunity to explore the city’s burgeoning cocktail scene and learn firsthand about the intricacies of Japanese bartending.

Shortly after returning to the States, Cisneros met Feldman and within less than a year became one of Uchu’s very first hires at a time when the restaurant was under construction. Cisneros became a key player in not only developing Uchu’s deep spirit collection and cocktail list but in designing the bar to fit Ginza specifications.

Cisneros told Feldman, “If you’re going to do this, we’re going to make it exactly like Japan,” he says. “That means we are going to build drinks directly on the bar, we are going to wear suits, and we are going to be super clean and super perfect.”

Ginza bars embrace bartending as a personalized art form—a carefully choreographed dance of wrist flicks, hard shakes and precise pours matched with pristine ice. A well-groomed bartender builds cocktails, one at a time, on an uncluttered bar, using fresh fruit juiced by hand. And that includes modifiers beyond citrus, like persimmons and grapes.

Sam Clonts making a golden osetra temaki (hand roll).

While New York already claims its fair share of bars that serve drinks with Japanese ingredients, Cisneros says that even places like Angel’s Share—one of New York’s very first cocktail bars that also happens to be Japanese—are not able to follow true Ginza-style execution.

“It’s not because they don’t want to,” he says. “But if you do it that way [making cocktails individually], you just cannot physically make drinks quickly. It takes much much longer to do everything. So because we are only eight seats, we have the luxury to be as authentic as we can.”

Beyond building perfect creations cooled by what’s probably New York’s most flawless ice—made with water imported from Kagoshima on a jimmy-rigged machine he built from an international cell phone charger, an old freezer, a medical insulin pump and some aquarium tubing, among other found objects—this means pouring Japanese whisky.

Currently offering 73 unique bottles of Japanese whisky and counting, Cisneros is responsible for Uchu’s epic booze bible, which includes some of the world’s rarest releases, like Yamazaki 25-year-old, which the bar sells in two-ounce pours for $995.

“That’s one of the rarest whiskies on the planet,” says Cisneros, who adds that while it’s distributed in the U.S., “only about three or four bottles ever make it in.” He recently sourced a bottle for a client in Canada who paid $21,000 CAD ($16,290 USD) for it.

The Paper cocktail, left, made with aged cachaca, pineapple, lime, orgeat and chamomile; and the Oak cocktail, made with Nikka Taketsuru whisky, raspberry, cinnamon, Angostura bitters and orange, finished with cherrywood smoke and a “brandied” cherry (“brandied” with Japanese whisky instead of brandy).

Yamazaki is one of the world’s best-known and most prestigious Japanese whisky brands. And while Uchu stocks other scarce Yamazaki selections like the single-malt sherry cask, it’s the Ichiro’s Malt & Grain expressions that Cisneros most prizes.

“They are just the most forward-thinking whiskies on the planet,” says Cisneros, who stocks 10 bottles at the moment. “They are doing things like ... [aging whisky] in 100 percent Japanese native mizunara oak,” which, he explains, cost about $22,000 per barrel.

He also cites Ichiro’s practice of aging whisky in spent Japanese red wine barrels versus French red wine barrels, the latter of which is common practice in the whisk(e)y world.

But what Cisneros is most excited about is also what Ichiro’s is know for: buying old whisky reserves from defunct distilleries around Japan.

“We have a couple of single-cask whiskies from them, and when you buy these whiskies, it’s a little bit like a lottery: Is this cask good, or is this cask not good?” says Cisneros. Uchu currently has two of these “lottery” bottles. One contains a whisky aged in a mix of American oak plus sherry oak casks, and the other holds juice aged in pure sherry casks.

“They’re the best Japanese whiskies I’ve ever tasted!” he says. “They’re 10 times better than the Yamazaki sherry cask or the Yamazaki 25, and they are a fraction of the price!”

Looks like Uchu won the lottery.