Japan is famous for cocktail, the mixing style and the level of service is unparalleled. I have been to Trench a few years ago and even then, Rogerio was the epitome of a bartender. The Pouringtales was destined to have him featured on the site and I was very happy when he agreed to the shoot.
Rogerio is forty-three years old and was born in Saõ Paulo, Brazil, where he lived until he was nineteen years old. His mother is of Japanese heritage but was also born in Brazil. After attending a technical/mechanical school, Rogerio started an apprenticeship at Bosch. Working while studying for the university entrance exam, he decided to take a break because everything was happening too fast for him. So Rogerio went on a search to discover his roots and traveled to Japan.
While in Japan, he spent the first three-and-a-half years working in a bottle-making factory in the countryside. Despite the several years he spent immersed in Japanese culture, he never managed to pick up much of the language. In 1997, he quit his job and decided to go traveling to New Zealand. Rogerio did not speak any English either at this time and decided it was time to do something about that. The solution was a homestay in Vancouver, Canada, for one year. After that year, and with enough English to get by, he moved back to Japan and started working in a café owned by a Canadian.
It was his first job in the hospitality industry as a waiter and he disliked it immensely. His Japanese was still too bad to be able to properly interact with the guests. Another homestay of one-and-a-half years and an intensive course at university provided a solution to his frustration of not being able to interact with the Japanese. He eventually moved on to a strip club where he waited tables, deejayed, and was eventually able to get some experience in barkeeping. A Filipino bartender taught him a lot of what there is to know about drinks.
Later he started working as a dishwasher in a tequila bar called Agave in Tokyo. Back in 2000, Agave already had a huge tequila and mezcal collection. It was his first real contact with spirits. Rogerio wasn’t a fan of tequila, though, and it took him a while to appreciate it. Agave had a second establishment in Ebisu, where he helped out from time to time, and from there he found his way into Bar Tram, which he frequently visited as a customer before deciding to work for them. Tram wasn’t all about cocktails back then; only roughly 20 percent of their sales came from cocktails.
Whisky bars were plentiful in Tokyo by that time, and to set themselves apart from them, they began to serve absinthe. This was in 2006. Rogerio brought back thirteen bottles from a wedding in Paris to increase their collection. Absinthe hadn’t really caught on in Tokyo yet, and it took them a long time to establish it. Over time, they collected more than 140 bottles, as the drink itself got more and more popular. Ultimately, people would come from far and wide to taste the absinthe at Tram and they became the most established absinthe bar in Japan. When a regular customer who owned a curtain shop close by moved out around 2012, he approached the team and asked if they wanted to take over his shop. They weren’t sure if they wanted to run a second establishment, but after some discussion decided to open a small place, which they named this new bar. Rogerio became a partner and took over the management of this new bar. He still lives in his Ebisu microcosm and travels to work by bike as often as he can.
When they opened Bar Trench seven years ago, Rogerio’s team did not yet have a strong identity. Rogerio went on a trip to Copenhagen and by chance visited the renowned cocktail bar Ruby. His experience there changed his mind about cocktails. After he came back, he transformed Bar Trench by focusing much more on cocktails. The bar stopped serving any wine and they only ever have six bottles of beer in the fridge. The bar has only twelve seats and Rogerio runs it with five staff members, even though it is open every day of the week. Four times per year, the menu is changed, with only a third of the drinks remaining on the menu. They are open until late at night and the exposed brick walls and wooden elements promote a cozy feel and atmosphere.
Rogerio’s inspiration comes from pretty much anywhere, for example from a movie or a song. Sometimes the recipe comes first and the name afterwards, but sometimes it’s the other way around. A guest came in with a small tattoo a while ago and it was just a little black line in the palm of his hand as an extension of a finger. Rogerio asked what its meaning was, and the he said: “It is the shadow of my finger.” Rogerio loved that so much as a name, that it inspired him to create a twist on a Corpse Reviver called the Shadow of my Finger.
Rogerio’s favorite is a Brooklyn cocktail. Before that it was a Manhattan, but that eventually became too sweet for him. A bartender introduced him to it back in the day and it has remained his favorite ever since. He just loves the combination of the ingredients with a bitter taste.
Bar Qwang in Tokyo.
The future of the bar world
Despite Japan’s renowned bartending culture, Rogerio feels that bartenders are ready for more, but the guests are not. Tokyo bars such as High 5, Ben Fiddich, and Bar Trench are scarce, and it is hard to attract new customers and inspire them to try something new. Lots of bars are stuck in their ways, as they don’t see room for innovation. However, this is slowly changing, partly due to a new, international clientele and the recent cocktail boom worldwide. With the younger generation in Japan, there may be hope, but Rogerio sees another difficulty ahead: the new generation does not drink that much and going to bars is not as trendy as it used to be. It will become more difficult in the future and bar owners will need to know their customer base.
Advice for opening a bar
Nowadays making delicious cocktails is not so difficult if you have some creativity and knowledge. There is plenty of information out there for free and there are tons of recipes and books to indulge in. Pairing this with high end spirits and good quality fresh and homemade ingredients it is half the rent. But running a bar is much more than that as you have to keep an eye on costs. You have to aim for the win win situation for the guest but also yourself. Selling a lot is good but if your costs are too higher, you will loose in the long run. You have to find a balance for you and your customers. Manage your costs is key and making cocktails is just a small part of the business.
It certainly feels like home to Rogerio now after so many years. When he first came here, he felt that everything was the exact opposite compared with Brazil. He met the right people, though, and he learned to enjoy the flow of the city over the years. He also stopped asking “why?” all the time and learned not to try and think too logically. It helps him to be at ease with Tokyo.
When he took a dive into the serving world and began to think more seriously about the hospitality industry. He hated it at first, but after putting some thought into it, he beagn to appreciate it. He used to block too much, but after trying to understand the service industry, he realised that instead of the customer or the sevice, it was he who was the problem and he learned to open up an appreciate it. This realization eventually led him to where he is now.
Target in life
He would like to have 4 horses and 3 dogs and a bird and a house. He always had a dog while growing up, but since he moved to Japan he never got one. His brother had a horse when they were young but could not keep it when they moved to the city. He loves horses.
Images: © Martin Holtkamp