Let me preface this by saying I’ve never operated a cash register and I’ve never worked in the food service industry a day in my life. But that didn’t stop the fine folks at SakaMai (157 Ludlow Street, NYC) from opening up their Pour Bar for me to host their first Shochu Tuesday Happy Hour last night, April 30th from 6-8pm. Fortunately, they had their hostess, Jesse, on call to handle the ordering system and run credit cards, but the drink pouring was all my responsibility. I made it easy on myself by selecting only 3 brands of shochu for happy hour pricing ($5/glass) along with 1 beer on special ($1 off regular price).
First let me say I’m amazed at just how much prep work a bartender has to do to get ready for the evening. At SakaMai all of this labor happens at the back bar, which is fully stocked for cocktails and has the amazing Roberto manning the mixing on most evenings. He painstakingly chips blocks of ice to fit perfectly into the rocks glasses, which I was using at the pour bar. Without his labor I would have been using chip ice and the customers wouldn’t have been nearly as impressed.
While I was waiting for the managers to free up to explain how to run the pour bar, I watched Roberto puree seared lemons for one of SakaMai’s signature cocktails. A process that took a good 20 minutes on its own. These guys work very hard to get ready for the evening. Remember that next time you tip a $1 on a cocktail. There was plenty of prep work that you’ll never see, but that prepared the bar for the moment when you enjoyed their creation.
Once SakaMai opened at 6pm we had our first customer. Suitably, it was Mr. Todoroki from Uminoie who has been supportive of my shochu activities from the very beginning. He ordered Gokoo on the rocks from Kitaya Shuzo in Fukuoka. He was also kind enough to pose for a photo.
So far so good. This was pretty easy. An hour later I was frazzled, barely keeping up with drink orders and routinely forgetting to refill water glasses and taking too long to pour drinks for thirsty patrons. Fortunately, on this trial run virtually everyone was a friend or friendly. I counted 19 guests and suspect the crowd will grow over time. I’ll need to be much more organized to do this well when customers are random strangers.
Those who came for the full tasting flight were impressed with the differences in flavor, aroma, and character of each of the three shochus we poured. Gankutsuoh is a clay pot aged rice shochu from Miyazaki Prefecture with a nice light dry taste. “Easy to drink” was said often by guests trying this spirit for the first time. Several customers returned to this as their favorite. The beautifully labeled Satsuma Shiranami from Satsuma Shuzo in Kagoshima Prefecture drew the most curiosity for customers who had never had shochu before as most people don’t realize you can actually make booze out of sweet potato. Despite my gentle warnings these new shochu drinkers were largely turned off by the overtly strong flavors that dominate sweet potato shochus. More experienced shochu drinkers went straight to this bottle and stayed there until they paid the check. The final shochu was Gokoo, which I was sure I’d previously reviewed on this site, but it turns out I haven’t (an oversight I’ll shortly correct). This barley shochu, aged for 3 years in American whiskey barrels, was the most popular of the evening. The smooth, sweet flavor and gentle aroma makes this a special drink and was a revelation for many guests.
Amusingly, to me anyway, the most difficult part of the job turned out to be keeping track of everyone’s orders. Since I haven’t yet been trained on SakaMai’s slick ipad app ordering system I was keeping notes on an old receipt pad. By the time the happy hour ended I’d managed to charge one guest for 2 drinks instead of 3 and charge another group of guests for 7 drinks instead of 5. Obviously, these are the kinds of errors that would get you a 5 star yelp review (Bartender is generous!) and a 1 star review (Bartender can’t perform simple arithmetic!). Fortunately in the case of the overcharge, it was my Kampai.us co-conspirators, Mike & Dean, who were stuck with the extra charges. I know just how to make it up to them. They gave me the receipt for posterity (and a healthy dose of humility).
I figure SakaMai netted one extra drink paid so if they’re reading this they won’t fire me … yet.
Though I think they came close after happy hour ended and I was cleaning up the various shochu items I’d brought to decorate the front bar for the evening. When I removed a Hakutake Shiro apron from beneath an enormous SakaMai sign, the sign itself crashed to the floor with the sound of a gunshot. I’d already turned my back so I never saw it coming. The entire restaurant hushed and I blushed. Fortunately for me the sign is made out of metal rather than glass, otherwise I’d definitely be out of a job.
My bartending adventures continue next Tuesday (May 7th from 6-8pm) where I’ll be pouring three different shochus at SakaMai. Please stop by and say hello. I promise to do my best to keep your order straight and not overcharge for any drinks.