Located on the 39th floor of Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi, Virtù (stylized as VIRTÙ) is a sleek and stylish cocktail bar employing Japanese techniques to reinterpret classic French flavors. US-born cocktail-mixing extraordinaire Joshua Perez is the head bartender there. He recently sat down with TW to discuss both his career and Virtù, including his thoughts on the bar’s seasonal specials.
How did you get started in bartending?
Kind of by accident. I used to work at this ski resort in Salt Lake City, cleaning rooms to get a ski pass. During an Oktoberfest event there was an opportunity to help out as a bar-back and I found that much more interesting than what I’d previously been doing. Then one night the bartender got snowed in and I was called upon to serve the drinks. After that, I worked in some bars in New Zealand, but it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco, aged 28, that I started properly mixing cocktails.
What’s been the biggest learning curve of your career so far?
The time I worked at Sasha Petraske’s family of bars, Milk & Honey, had a big impact on me. It fundamentally changed the way I bartend, helping me realize the distinction between showmanship and craftsmanship. Yes, you’re on a kind of stage and sometimes people expect a bit of a show, but it’s not about your own ego. You need to read the guests and their expectations.
Your aim should be to elevate the guests’ experience and deliver their drinks in the freshest state possible. To do that, you need to get the order of operations right. For instance, you don’t want to pour a martini before the whiskey as it’s fragile and will be getting warmer and warmer as it sits there. These are the kinds of things I became more aware of while working at Sasha’s bar and I switched the way I build drinks as a result.
Why did you choose Japan?
Japan was actually the first country I went to outside North America. I tutored Japanese students in English while at university and ended up doing a study abroad program here, staying at the home of one of my ESL students. Bartending is a transferable skill set that has allowed me to travel the world and Japan was somewhere I always wanted to return to. It just had to be the right job and I managed to find that. I also have a passion for Japanese whiskey.
What was it like arriving in the middle of the pandemic? And how has it been since?
I came last autumn when the bar was new and there was a real buzz around the place. There weren’t many restrictions at that point and we were starting to establish ourselves. Then everything shut down in January. After that, we were mostly under a state of emergency. Personally, I haven’t properly had the chance to experience Tokyo yet. It’s been stressful at times, but it’s the same for everyone. It’s great to see things opening up more now, so hopefully that will continue.
What makes Virtù special?
There’s a good local and international balance, both in terms of staff and clientele. You can come here and enjoy a quiet conversation on a weekday and then on a weekend there’s more of a celebratory atmosphere. Sometimes you go to cocktail bars and they feel very exclusive. Here we’re inclusive. Of course, I oblige when a guest wants to spend the evening talking about rum and whiskey, but at the same time we’re more than happy to welcome people who just want a draft beer and pizza or those with no interest in alcohol at all.
It’s a stylish location to enjoy a drink. We have a Paris meets Tokyo aesthetic with some art deco furniture. There’s a romantic, bohemian feel to the place with sleek lacquer wood chairs, kimono silk patterns, crystalized French lace and chandeliers reminiscent of Tokyo’s iconic cityscape. It’s intimate yet at the same spacious so guests aren’t on top of each other. And then there’s the view. Up on the 39th floor with all of Tokyo at your feet, I can certainly think of worse places to work.
What can you tell us about the seasonal cocktails for this Christmas? And how important is seasonality to Virtù?
It’s very important. Our seasonal drinks give the entire team an opportunity to be a little more adventurous and experimental. It’s fun to do and a big part of the culture here. I’m looking forward to the reaction to our Christmas drinks. The Whisky Mendiant went down very well with everyone. It has a smoky chocolate raisin flavor that pairs well with chocolate. Then we have a chocolate-made daiquiri that’s like a shaken mojito sweetened with a creme de cacao. The chocolate mint gives it a Christmassy feel. And then to top off the festive season, you need some champagne and cognac which you’ll find in our Sidecar Royale.
What are some current cocktail trends in Tokyo?
High-end tea-based cocktails are very popular right now. We have a bartender here called Yukiko Watanabe who’s very good at making cocktails with tea as the base, as opposed to alcohol. Younger generations aren’t drinking as much these days so we have a lot of nonalcoholic cocktails or drinks with a low AVB (alcohol by volume). As I mentioned earlier, here we are all about inclusivity so it’s important to have a wide range of options. Our absinthe eggnog, for instance, can be made with coconut cream to make it vegan friendly.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your career footsteps?
Keep an open mind as there’s more than one way to do something. Don’t try to enforce your ideals on people. Embrace and accept other styles but also respect the house style. They will have a process and a reason for doing things the way they are. On top of that, don’t take yourself too seriously. At the end of the day, we’re not curing cancer. We’re mixing ingredients together and it tastes good. It’s not about you, it’s about the guests’ experience.
What are you looking forward to in 2022?
With the limited hours we’ve had this year, I’m just looking forward to opening up more. We couldn’t do as many of the seasonal drinks as we’d have liked in 2021, so hopefully we’ll have more of an opportunity in 2022. I’m very excited about using the kakigori machine to make those shaved ice cocktails. It should be a good year.
This article was published in Tokyo Weekender’s Nov-Dec 2021 magazine. Flip through the issue by clicking on the image below.