Tokyo does it the Speyside Way (The Speyside Way)

Tokyo does it the Speyside Way (The Speyside Way)

Taylor Smisson claims that Scotland doesn't have the monopoly on world-class Scotch malt whisky bars and visits Tokyo's The Speyside Way bar to prove his point

Bars | 16 Nov 2001 | Issue 19 | By Taylor Smisson

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Where can you find the best Scotch malt whisky bars in the world? You would think that you were being foolish if you didn’t immediately say anything other than Scotland. Not necessarily, for there is another country rich in bars that stock a myriad of whiskies that quench the thirst of that particular nation’s discerning malt drinkers. However, if you had to think which country this was you would be likely to be deliberating for sometime.Japan has some of the best Scotch malt whisky bars in the world, a fact largely unknown by even the inhabitants of the land of the rising sun. Tokyo alone has over 30 bars which have selections of 100 or more Scotch malt whiskies and there are several with over 300. To keep this many bars in business, it is obvious that Japan also has a large number of malt whisky enthusiasts. To understand the seeming paradox of the popularity of malt whisky in the land of sake and shochu, it’s a good idea to visit one of these whisky bars and talk to the owner – Toru Suzuki, Manager of The Speyside Way, for example.
From the moment you open the door and enter Suzuki’s bar you know that you have not just stepped into any Tokyo bar but
a place to worship Scotch, Scotland and the sultire. Any malt enthusiast would immediately be dumbstruck by the sheer volume of whisky on display – evenProfessor Stephen Hawkings would have to re-write his theories on physics, space and dimension to understand how so much can be packed into such a small space. On four shelves, each seven metres long, and in rows up to seven deep are about 1,000 whiskies, of which about 800 are malts. There’s quite a clash of styles on The Speyside Way. The desire to recreate a Scottish-style pub clashes with the traditional style of Japanese sushi and sake bars: staff greet everyone who enters the bar with a hearty shout of "Irasshaimase!" (Welcome!) which echoes around the room that is home to not just an ocean of Scotch but tables made from redundant casks and a Scottish national flag. Directing these highly vocal staff is Suzuki-san in his usual dark green plaid waistcoat, who will quickly size up the new customer and quietly direct the staff to show them to an open chair at the counter or a table in the back. There are many regulars here, each with their favorite seats so, when looking around at the faces of the other customers, one often gets a sense of déjà vu. Most are Japanese in their 30s or early 40s, although there is often a few gaijin (foreigners).It seems that Suzuki-san is a bartending natural, possibly raised by itinerant distillery workers in an old mash tun on a diet of new make spirit. However, he started his working career as a graphic designer at an office in the Ginza. Drinking at some of the bars near his office after work raised his interest to the point that he decided to resign from his job and work full-time as a barman. Eventually he looked to start his own venture and Suzuki-san honed his ideas on a visit to Aberlour and happened to stop by the Aberlour Station Bar, now The Mash Tun.However, he didn’t want to simply ape Scottish bars – he wanted to improve upon Japanese bar culture. “When you talk about bars in Japan, many previous visitors recall that many bars charge you just for sitting down and, even though you have not received any special service, they also charge you a service charge and, on top of that, the prices of the drinks are not cheap,” laments Suzuki-san. “I felt there must be a better way. On my trips to Scotland, when I went to pubs, the prices were very easy to understand. When you ordered something ... it was cash on delivery. Most people who really love malt whisky like to drink it at least once or twice a week. A normal salaryman in Japan, however, cannot afford to pay tens of thousands of yen just for going out to drink one time. This made me think about how they could have a good time drinking malt whisky for only five or six thousand yen and I set my whisky prices accordingly.” Unlike many bars in Tokyo that rely mainly on customer’s with expense accounts who can afford to pay hefty bar tabs, the great majority of Suzuki-san’s customers pay their own way. He found, however, that he still had to balance the Scottish pub image with what his Japanese clientele expected from a bar. “I tried a style that was a mix of elements of the pub as well as elements of the Japanese bar ... in contrast to pubs, the specialty of most Japanese bars is cocktails and they are less focused on serving whisky. We therefore make cocktails, too. For some reason, even though it is possible for a bar to succeed in Japan these days just serving wine as a wine bar, it is very hard for a bar to succeed just serving whisky.” Suzuki-san estimates that about half of his customers order whisky, the other half are probably still standing at the bar trying to decide what they are going to sample! This is because The Speyside Way’s Scotch collection is tremendously varied. Within Suzuki-san’s collection are differing expressions from what seems like every distillery imaginable, extremely oldbottlings (such as the Bulloch & Lade Caol Ila 15-year-old, the Samaroli Laphroaig 1967-1982, the official Aberlour Glenlivet 1965 6-year-old in a square bottle and several old SMWS bottlings from the late 1980s and early 1990s) and recent releases (Glen Moray 1981 ‘Hand Bottled’, the Bruichladdich Valinch 1970 and the Waldhaus Am See 1976 Bowmore). There are also official bottlings and releases from a wide variety of independents such as Cadenhead, Douglas Laing, Hart Brothers, Kingsbury, the Bottlers and Signatory. Also included in Suzuki’s collection are offerings from several bottlers who tend to import mainly into one country, such as Samaroli and Moon of Italy, and Scoma, Pipers Preferred and Alte Tabakstube of Germany. Suzuki-san says there are two reasons for the relatively high number of independent bottlings. The first is that most bars carry the standard proprietary bottlings, so having many independent bottlings allows customers to drink malts they can not find at a ‘normal’ bar. The second is that Suzuki-san prefers cask strength malts and there are relatively few official bottlings at cask strength. “I feel that whisky’s true form is the way it is when it comes out of the cask and, when I have a whisky for the first time, I want to know, and want my customers to know, what the whisky is like in this true form.” While talking about the older bottlings, Suzuki-san becomes a little wistful. “Compared to the whisky being bottled today, the whiskies bottled many years ago tended to be better. Of course, not all old bottlings are good. Since they were bottled a long time ago whether or not the whisky has held up well over the time in the bottle, often under less than ideal storage
conditions, is a big issue and there are some that were not good to start with. Also, even though many are good, one cannot keep selling just old bottlings forever since they are not made anymore. However, I still want my customers to know how great some of the older bottlings are, so I try to strike the right balance of recent and old bottlings.”To further help his customers get to know great whiskies at a reasonable price, Suzuki-san chooses one (or more) rare and expensive whisky each month to sell to his customers at a relatively low mark-up. Here, again, Suzuki-san tries to strike a balance of old and recent bottlings and some of his offerings over the last couple of months include Samaroli Ardbeg 1974 - 1983, Strathisla 35-year-old Bi-centenary, Glenmorangie 1976 commemorative bottling for the first Concorde flight, Glen Moray 1959 40-year-old, Springbank 45 and 50-year-old Limited Editions and the most recent Glenmorangie Manager’s Choice finished in port wood.Among the older bottlings behind the bar, the differing types of Samarolis catch the eye. Some passion returns to Suzuki-san’s voice: “Samaroli bottlings up through the mid-1980s were, to put it simply, excellent. What was good and what was different from other bottlings was that they did not necessarily have, for example with Ardbeg, the standard Ardbeg flavour that everyone knew, loved and expected from an Ardbeg. I heard in the past that when Mr. Samaroli discovered an interesting cask, he would send it to a distillery and have them fill it. Also, it is said that he sometimes matured the same whisky in more than one cask. The Samaroli bottlings had many very unique, interesting flavours that you do not find in any other bottlings. And, of course, almost all the ones from this period are very good. Of course, for people who like Ardbeg or Laphroaig, they may taste these bottlings and say ‘This is not Ardbeg!’ or ‘This is not Laphroaig!’, but I, personally, do not think that all whisky from a certain distillery must have a certain flavour. I find these bottlings interesting and I think it is good to have the variation in flavours.”Getting the best out of a good bottle of malt whisky, however, can take a fair amount of patience, timing and malt sense. Suzuki-san has found that malts benefit from time. “For old bottlings which, when first opened, have a musty smell or a strong caramel smell, the unpleasant smells often go away when left for a while. Also, for whiskies affected by cork taint, mainly found in older bottlings, I have found that some get better when you leave them for some time. Another candidate for this treatment are those with very high proof, especially ones bottled recently, which, when you first open them, have an overpowering alcohol nose and flavour. For these, I try to pour a few shots and then put it away in one of the back rows, pouring a shot for a customer now and then to give the alcohol time and space in the bottle to evaporate a little.”Suzuki-san is very careful about the nurturing of his whiskies. This is also shown by the fact that he leaves the air conditioning on 24 hours a day, despite the impact on his electricity bills, to protect his whiskies from the hot Tokyo summers. With this undeniable passion for malts, Suzuki-san’s whisky bar won’t be a secret for much longer. As one leaves Speyside Way, hearing the traditional “Arigato gozaimashita!” (Thank you!) shouted from behind the bar, you know that a small part of Tokyo will forever be Scotland.
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