Alan Akwai has spent time behind the stick at some of Portland’s most notable craft cocktails bars (including Teardrop Lounge and Bluehour). Now at the new Wafu restaurant he's stepped into the role of bar manager and put together a unique bar program inspired by Japanese bar tending and Japanese bar tending techniques.
A key element of his bar program is an impressive ice program. Inspired by the ice work of Andrew R Bohrer at Mistral Kitchen and Bryn Lumsden at Rob Roy, Akwai breaks down a 300 pound block of Clinebell ice and transforms it into hand cut ice spheres. "It only takes two of us about ninety minutes to break the block down and get everything ready for making spheres, the delivery time window is really the most time consuming element," comments Akwai.
Akwai compliments this hand cut ice with a Kold Draft ice machine whose ice he uses in his shaken and stirred drinks. "It's less about dilution ratios or optimal ice temperatures and density, it's about creating an experience for the customer," explains Akwai. "I could go on all day explaining how dilution likes corners, that the Clinebell ice is crystal because it has no oxygen, but the fact is that it looks cool and customers love it. They enjoy having an experience that they can't have at home."
In addition to using the Japanese mixing glasses and string spoons so common now in craft bars, Akwai employs the use of cobbler shakers and mixes drinks using the Japanese hard shake. "Instead of having the ice crash against the ends of the shaker, it's a rolling and tumbling action. There's less airspace and you toss and spin the ice to aerate the drink and then secondarily chill them." The effect of this style of shaking is a far less dramatic shake that puts the bartender less in the spotlight than the traditional shake with a Boston shaker.
"This style of bar tending is completely about serving the customer. If someone comes in and asks for a Grey Goose martini, I make them a Grey Goose martini, I don't try to suggest that they have it with gin," says Akawi. "We are making drinks for our guests, not for anyone else. It's all about taking care of the customer."
Akwai's menu is a unique mix of Japanese inspired drinks, like the Shinkansen which is Kissui, Hakatusrui Junmai and Kirin; classic cocktails like the White Lady and fusion cocktails like the Yamazaki Bijou and the City Coral which mixes gin, Midori, Blue Curacao, grapefruit and tonic in a white and blue rimmed glass. Akwai is also building a library of fine whiskey. In addition to the Japanese whiskeys available in the US, Akwai continues to find unique offerings like Sheep Dip Whisky, increasingly hard to find spirits like Laphroaig Quarter Cask and whisky that's often overlooked like Coal Ila and Glenfarclas.
There's an immense amount of attention to detail and a great deal of sophistication in Alan Akwai's drink program at Wafu. Alan could easily be trumpeting the ice program or the precision of his mixology. But ultimately it's his focus on serving the customer and creating an experience centered around them that's key.
Read more from Bartenders.