Masahiro “Masa” Urushido, the managing partner and “director of deliciousness” at Katana Kitten in New York City, is “what a bartender should be,” according to Julio Cabrera of Café La Trova in Miami. What, exactly, does that mean? “He’s superbly welcoming and accommodating,” says Chicago drinks pro and Crafthouse Cocktails founder Charles Joly. “Masa reads his guests and will deliver each with an experience.”
Urushido can certainly make a good cocktail. Anyone who’s tried one of his creations at Katana Kitten, which opened in 2018, or at the now-shuttered Saxon + Parole, where he worked for seven years beforehand (starting not long after he moved to the U.S. from Japan), can attest to his brilliant creativity. They can also vouch for his attention to the minutest nuances of flavor, texture, temperature, presentation, and other details that go into making a cocktail that’s not just good but truly noteworthy. A few of his signature creations at Katana Kitten include the Meguroni, a Negroni variation made with umeshu, or plum liqueur; the Hinoki Martini, his “take on a well-made saketini” that gets its unique aromatics from a hinoki tincture; and the Calpico Swizzle, an eye-catchingly blue-hued cocktail incorporating the yogurt-like Japanese soft drink for which it’s named.
But it’s Urushido’s generosity, graciousness, and the sheer joy he takes in his craft that have made him so beloved by his guests and the bartending world. It’s the way in which he makes each guest feel special. “His hospitality is beyond anything I have ever experienced in this country,” says Kate Gerwin of Happy Accidents in Albuquerque.
“As anyone who works in service, I always try to put myself in the guests’ shoes,” Urushido writes in The Japanese Art of the Cocktail, the 2021 book he co-wrote with Michael Anstendig. “I make a point of carefully reading the mood of my guests by seeking out clues in their gestures and eye contact. Learning guests’ habits and preferences is essential, and forms the basis of anticipating their needs later on.”
Urushido attributes his bartending approach to his training in his native Japan, where, he writes, “I came to see the repetitive routines and rituals of pre-service preparation, service, and post-service cleanup as an essential everyday meditation.” He also credits the Japanese concept of kaizen, or continuous improvement, citing the “self-motivated perfectionism and meticulousness” that pervades Japanese culture.
Although influenced by his home country, Urushido’s philosophy of hospitality is one-of-a-kind. It’s the unique combination, in equal degrees, of precision and playfulness that guests find so endearing and which forms his signature style. Then there’s an essential dash of the wide smile and twinkling eyes with which he greets each guest. As Caer Maiko Ferguson, the general manager of DrinkWell in Austin, says, “Masa’s smile is happiness personified.”