With 882 stations across 121 rail lines in the Greater Tokyo area, merely glancing at a public transport map of the city can be intimidating. Certain areas have hundreds or even thousands of places to enjoy a drink, while others may be home to only a handful. Tokyo can appear at first chaotic to even the most hardened jet-setting urbanites. Underneath that lies a city welcoming to virtually anyone looking for a drink at any hour of the day.
Characterising a given bar as a ‘Tokyo-style bar’ is a fool’s errand. Some may immediately conjure forth images of Suntory Hibiki backdropped by Nishi-Shinjuku’s glittering skyline out the window of Park Hyatt Tokyo’s New York Bar – both centrepieces of 2003’s Lost in Translation. Others might picture themselves rubbing elbows with eccentric locals in a smoky five-seater bar in Golden Gai at 2am. The retro izakaya vibes of outdoor yakitori and highballs along Asakusa’s Hoppy Dori could also come to mind. Rainy cyberpunk ramen, black bowties, hand-carved ice balls, and vintage whiskies all happen in Tokyo, but the city also offers much more for those willing to venture off the usual tourist track.
Japan’s history with whisky goes back to 1854, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry gifted casks of both rye and Scotch whiskies to help smooth over relations between the United States and Japan, then governed by the Tokugawa shogunate. This, alongside a show of force by the United States Navy, would culminate in the Japan–US Treaty of Peace and Amity, and ultimately contributed to the Meiji Restoration that set Japan upon the path of modernisation and militarisation. The country’s first Western-style bar opened in the Yokohama Hotel in 1860, followed by Tokyo’s first, the Kamiya Bar, in 1880. Kamiya Bar operates in its same Asakusa location today.
Rather than a single city, it’s best to think of Tokyo as a collection of enclaves that provide wildly different experiences. This is especially evident when speaking of whisky bars. Devastated by air raids in 1945, Ginza rose from the ashes to become the city’s – if not the country’s – most influential bar scene. Suntory’s Tory’s Bar chain cemented after-work drinks as a part of Japanese workplace culture. Record bars, referred to as ‘record kissa’ at the time, can trace their history to 1929’s Black Bird, near today’s University of Tokyo. Thanks to the resurgence of the whisky highball, there’s whisky waiting around every corner.
As the city grew in population, clusters of like-minded folks of similar socioeconomic backgrounds emerged, spawning today’s contrasting atmospheres. Day-drinking Ueno is across the city from Shinjuku’s Kabukicho hostess clubs. Cocktail-friendly Shibuya is comparatively far from Asakusa’s historic Kaminarimon, but it is close to the international-minded Roppongi. Rejuvenated, modern Toranomon is just down the street from salaryman central, Shimbashi. Mastery of Tokyo’s seemingly chaotic public transport systems reveals how even two stations separated by only a few hundred metres on the JR Yamanote Line feel so different.
Digging deeper into Tokyo’s various neighbourhoods is rewarding. These bar selections should offer a glimpse at the sheer variety available to anyone with the desire to drink whisky in the world’s most populous city.
Tokyo-to Toshima-ku Nishiikebukuro 3-29-11 3F
Since opening in 2019, Ikebukuro’s Aloha Whisky has risen to fame as one of Tokyo’s most reliable spots for great whiskies, be them Japanese, Scotch, or otherwise. Hawaiian-born owner David Tsujimoto (an Icons of Whisky award winner) opened the bar because his collection had simply grown too large to consume on his own. Apart from what is probably the world’s most comprehensive selection of Chichibu Distillery releases, Aloha Whisky offers vintage Suntory bottles, single cask releases, current limited editions of popular Japanese whiskies, and private bottlings, plus a great line-up of American whiskies. Everything is available as a half-shot, and the bar regularly runs monthly specials. Reservations are highly recommended.
Chiba-ken Funabashi-shi Honcho 1−8−29 2F
Chiba Prefecture is Tokyo’s next-door neighbour, and Bar Shinozaki in Funabashi is worth the trip. Owner Shinozaki-san makes daily visits to the Toyosu Market for the catch of the day, and not just from the ocean: Bar Shinozaki’s menu of fruit-based cocktails highlights in-season fruits at their most ripe. A recent refreshing recommendation brought together fresh green apple, aromatic basil, Boso Rum made in Chiba Prefecture, and tonic. Shinozaki-san also happens to be the supervisor of the Japan Cured Ham Association, taking home the Jamón Ibérico cutting contest title for East Japan in 2017. A sherry might seem like the obvious pairing, but whisky fans will also enjoy a great selection of Ardbeg and other single malts alongside world-class slices of ham or fish.
Tokyo-to Chuo-ku Ginza 6-3-6 B1
Now in its 12th year of operation, Takeshi Kageyama’s namesake Bar Kage has become a well-known establishment familiar to any serious fan of Japanese whisky. The tranquillity afforded by the spacious counter and low lighting offer an intimate Ginza atmosphere to try some of the finest whiskies from Japan and abroad. Bar Kage’s highly acclaimed 10th anniversary Ichiro’s Malt & Grain bottling serves as ample evidence of Kageyama-san’s close relationships with leading industry figures, including Ichiro Akuto. Private bottlings plus limited releases flank an excellent selection of Mars Whisky’s premium single casks. True to its Ginza roots, Bar Kage does not miss a beat when it comes to classic whisky cocktails such as the Rusty Nail or Manhattan.
Toranomon Bar Shinkai
Tokyo-to Minato-ku Toranomon
The Toranomon area has undergone heavy development in recent years, resulting in a new wave of luxury shopping, dining, and hotel options. The modern-Japanese-inspired Toranomon Bar Shinkai opened in 2018, bringing in many of those well-heeled visitors for after-dinner drinks or the bar’s famed curry. The Matcha Chocolate Martini or a fresh fruit cocktail serves as a good digestif, but for whisky fans, the bar’s draw is the cutting-edge line-up of Japanese whiskies. Rather than one-of-a-kind single cask releases, this bar’s strengths lie in its very up-to-date staff and rapid acquisition of new releases, many available at the bar the very day they’re out on the market. It’s something of a necessity: Toranomon Bar Shinkai is the home of the Japanese Whisky Dictionary, a multilingual website tracking the latest trends and releases in the Japanese whisky industry. Happy hour at the bar runs from 5pm–7pm.
Japanese Malt Whisky Sakura
Tokyo-to Chiyoda-ku Marunouchi 1-9-1 Tokyo Station B1
Opened mid-pandemic, Japanese Malt Whisky Sakura is rarity even for Tokyo: it’s a well-stocked whisky bar located in Japan’s foremost transportation hub, JR Tokyo Station. Open from 10am daily, the bar keeps more than 60 types of Japanese whisky from standard releases to rare single casks on hand. The menu is kept up to date, so pricing is transparent, and all whiskies are offered as half shots, full shots, or highballs. Set just two floors below the shinkansen tracks, the location is unbeatable for anyone passing through Tokyo station.
Tokyo Whisky Library
Tokyo-to Minato-ku Minamiaoyama 5-5-24 2F
Instead of 99 bottles of beer, 1,300 bottles of whisky line the walls of the aptly named Tokyo Whisky Library in the glitzy Minamiaoyama district. The bar’s high ceilings, well-stocked shelves, lounge-style seating, and exposed brick interior are a departure from most expectations of whisky dens in Tokyo. At the same time, it feels right at home amongst the Japan flagship stores of global fashion brands. The 100-plus-page Scotch-centric menu – which opens with an index – features whiskies from all the world’s major producing regions, and devotes four pages to ‘Old Whisky’ and six pages to Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottles. That’s rounded out by a cocktail menu curated by 2015 Diageo World Class global winner Michito Kaneko, including options like the Signature Mojito with Maker’s Mark syrup made in-house.
Bar Shinjuku Whisky Salon
Tokyo-to Shinjuku-ku Shinjuku 3-12-1 3F
‘Master of whisky’ is a qualification currently held by only 13 people worldwide, and Kazunori Shizuya became the youngest holder of the title in 2019. His Bar Shinjuku Whisky Salon is the flagship bar from which he commands a huge SNS following, but more importantly, the luxurious haven summons whisky lovers and creative cocktail lovers alike. Shizuya-san is involved in nearly all facets of Japan’s whisky industry, wearing hats as bar owner, Whiskypedia TV personality, taster/blender, brand ambassador, industry advocate, and recently, even as a whisky glass designer. The bar is a welcome respite from the hectic alleys of Golden Gai, only a stone’s throw away. Glen Grant Aboralis with yuzu, truffle salt, mint, and sweet pickle is one of six serves of the Whiskolaschka, pairing straight whisky aromas with food.