Talking with So Sugiyama

by Myscha Theirault

HARU Gramercy Park

Classically-trained cellist So Sugiyama knows something about discipline. Having trained in music and the Japanese language from the age of 3, he brought the same dedication to his training for the bartending trade. After finishing class time every day, he logged an additional 3 hours, even though the employees at the academy he attended thought he was off his rocker. Knowing that painstaking practice was the only way to become proficient in the technical aspects of bartending however, Sugiyama persevered.

It was this discipline and drive which caught the attention of the people at HARU, first at the Boston location where So worked on his cello skills during his down time, and finally to their Gramercy Park location in NYC where he’s also currently working on a degree from Columbia. Having recently had the chance to connect with So Sugiyama, I was curious about what similarities he saw between a cocktail career and one in classical music. Here’s what he had to say.

Harmony:

In music, harmony is closely associated with balance. With cocktails, this balance refers to the one created among the ingredients. A little over or a little under and your cocktail will fall flat on its face. Don’t listen to the haters. A jigger is just as useful to a pro as it is to an amateur.

Quality:

Great musicians can move people with just the quality of their tone. With cocktails, quality refers to the ingredients. As a general rule, fresh is the only way to go. While I am not suggesting that one needs to press fresh orange juice from the orange grove behind the bar, I do recommend using, say, fresh lime juice and simple syrup for a classic cocktail like the gimlet.

Standards:

Music is a daunting pursuit that can be an eternal work in progress. The greatest ones separate themselves by never becoming complacent and assuming that they always sound great. In cocktailing, this means you need to check your work. Every time. You’ve made 300 mojitos? I don’t care. Check each one of them. Consider that great chefs obsessively taste their dishes regardless of how many times they’ve made them before.   

State Performance:

The way you bow, the way you smile while playing the most fiendishly difficult passages, and the way you create tension are all part of the art of musical performance. If you’re making a classic cocktail like a martini, don’t forget about this crucial aspect. People can derive (almost) as much enjoyment watching you make their cocktail as drinking them. This element also allows you to create a unique style that customers can come to identify as part of your bartending repertoire.

The Audience:

The burden rests solely on the artist to move the audience. If the audience is falling asleep, point your finger at the performer. As a bartender, this burden lies in the form of the tone you set for the bar. My favorite moments are when I can transform cantankerous customers into congenial ones by the time they pay the bill. (This of course might have something to do with the booze I’m serving them.) Nonetheless, this is your bar. In order to be successful, you must be willing to own it in its entirety.

So’s favorite spirits are bourbon and gin. In that order. When it comes to preferred brands, Sugiyama points to Basil Hayden, Woodford Reserve and Bombay Sapphire. As for his cello training, he still travels to Boston every Sunday to work with his revered instructor. When asked how he manages to get up every week three hours after a late Saturday night shift, Sugiyama points to his teacher, whom he considers to be the greatest man he has ever known. When you have someone like that in your life says So, “You drink some very strong coffee and get on the damn bus.



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