Masahiro Urushido has just been announced as the peer-voted Altos Bartenders’ Bartender 2022, ahead of the inaugural revelation of North America’s 50 Best Bars on 7th June. Emma Janzen meets the Katana Kitten sensei to explore his journey from a remote Japanese prefecture to the zenith of his continent’s cocktail scene
Known for his generous, charming smile, playful attitude and dedication to good hospitality, Masahiro Urushido is often counted as one of the world’s most affable bartenders. As the kind of person who lights up a room by simply walking into it, fellow cocktailians have long held him in regard as a good-natured and charismatic member of New York’s cocktail community. It’s no surprise, then, that Urushido has been voted by the head bartenders on the list of North America’s 50 Best Bars as the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender 2022.
From growing up in Minowa, a small, rural town in the Nagano prefecture of Japan, to operating one of New York City’s most celebrated cocktail bars in Katana Kitten, Urushido’s journey to world-class bartending started when he was a teenager finishing his last year of high school in Tokyo. To make ends meet, he served beer in a karaoke bar and navigated the busy city streets delivering pizzas by bicycle. He did this for several years before finding a more formal gig that set him on the path towards cocktails. “Random luck,” he says, landed him a food running position at Tableaux, a fine-dining establishment that catered mostly to the rich and famous. “I had never been to a restaurant at that level of fine dining before. Everything looked like it did in the movies, it was very theatrical and popular at the time.”
Eventually a bartending position opened at the restaurant, an opportunity that Urushido embraced with gusto. “The bartender always looked so cool. I wanted to go from my busboy jacket to the vest and tie,” he says of the impetus for the switch. Once behind the stick, Urushido enjoyed the opportunity to talk to guests and memorise details about their occupations and favourite drink orders. “I kept a notepad in my pocket with people’s names so I could remember these things the best I could, because that’s what the star servers and bartenders would do. It was about timing and nuance.”
Katana Kitten's signature cocktail, the Hinoki Martini
Coming to America
From a young age, Urushido says he was interested in all things USA – he begged his mother to start learning English when he was about six years old – so when one of his cousins moved to the States and invited him to come visit, Urushido began organising regular visits to the Big Apple. When he turned 26, he made the move permanent. Not knowing exactly what he wanted to do, he enrolled in community college and worked in bars to make a living at the same time. “The first person I met in New York – and I can’t thank him enough because he set me in the right direction – was Paul Franich, who was a vodka brand ambassador at the time. He looked after me like a little brother, introduced me to Kenta-san from Bar Goto,” Urushido recalls. “Kenta-san was the first Japanese person I met in New York and already a successful bartender at Pegu Club.”
Franich also introduced Urushido to the key players behind Saxon + Parole, which opened in the Bowery neighbourhood in 2011. Urushido was hesitant to join the team at first. “I was slinging Jack and Coke and making okay money to make a living. I was young, single, doing five shifts a week, sleeping in on days off,” he says. “But I was craving more schooling, and after I had a drink from Saxon I knew I wanted to work there. I wanted to get schooled, and that’s how it all started. Saxon was an eye-opening program for me, an eye-opening way of how to make drinks.”
At Saxon, his entryway into the cocktail realm solidified as he was introduced to industry luminaries like Dale DeGroff, Julie Reiner, Audrey Saunders and Jim Meehan. Behind the bar, he met Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Jimenez, a kindred spirit whom he would eventually go on to open The Daily with years later. He travelled, participating in drinks competitions and expanding his network into the international bartending scene, until Greg Boehm of Cocktail Kingdom approached him with the hopes of opening a Japanese-style bar.
Masahiro Urushido was named Altos Bartenders' Bartender 2022 in the lead-up to the inaugural edition of North America's 50 Best Bars
Urushido was game for the challenge. When Katana Kitten debuted in the summer of 2018, he took the lessons learned working at the well-oiled machine of Saxon + Parole and set out to create a neighbourhood bar that would pay homage to his upbringing in Japan and everything he’s subsequently learned working in American cocktails. Think: Japanese izakaya meets classic New York cocktail bar. “It’s easy to marry those together,” he says. “It’s Japanese-American but still authentic enough that my parents can come here and have it taste familiar.”
At Katana, Urushido has dubbed himself the “director of deliciousness” and that cheeky, vivacious energy permeates into every aspect of the programming, from the playful drinks and food to the electric ambiance and jovial atmosphere that exists on any given night of the week. “Success to me is that everyone who works with us here together at Katana feels joy, and can be the best version of themselves,” he says. “To walk around a bar full of people and see lots of smiles and lots of good conversations and positive energy – that means we are creating a comfortable place for everyone. I just want to make sure everyone is happy.”
Ultimately, for Urushido, being a great bartender is all about cultivating community, which is why if you ask him about his success, he’ll rattle off a list of all the people who inspired, helped, and lifted him along the way. People like Naren Young and Nacho, Paul, Kenta and countless others – the kind friends and mentors who serve as his bartending family to this day. “I got lucky and then luckier by working in this industry, meeting the right people, with the right timing and they all cautiously guided me and gave me the best shot,” he says.
He takes almost no credit for his own hard work, and this community-first mentality is also the reason why winning this award means a lot to him, even though at first he didn’t recognise it. “When they told me I won the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award, I was like, ‘oh wow, cool, thank you!’ Then the moment I realised this award was from bartenders who voted for me, I got so emotional. I didn’t cry, but I felt like I was going to. I don’t know who voted for me, but I would like to say thank you to each one of them. I am so grateful,” he said, before adding that classic Masa caveat: “the reason these things happen is because of our team, though. We have the best team.”
Dive into Katana Kitten with Masahiro Urushido:
North America’s 50 Best Bars will be revealed at an event in New York City on 7th June. The ceremony will be livestreamed on 50 Best Bars TV YouTube channel and 50 Best Bars Facebook page. Follow now to be the first to know the details of the event and receive a reminder of its screening.