By Dave Broom

Behind the stick

Dave finds himself on the other side of the bar, dispensing wisdom and drams
It’s one thing being positioned in front of a bar; it is my default seating you could say. Being behind the stick once more is a rare occurrence, a thankfully rare one many would say, but when a chance came to dust off those hard-won skills I couldn’t resist. What bar-fly could turn down the opportunity to work a bar in Tokyo’s Golden Gai?

I’ve written about this weird republic of Tokyo bars before, but for those of you who were asleep at the back, Golden Gai is a former red-light district in Shinjuku which now contains in excess of 200 bars compressed into the space of a city block. That means that they are small, even by Tokyo standards, but I was delighted to discover that my bar was full to bursting with six punters downstairs and the same number in the loft. I squeezed behind the bar, popped on a mix of George Jones, The Band, The Dead and Kathleen MacInnes on the iPod, and began dispensing drams and chat.

The punters were, as you might expect, an eclectic mix: bloggers, geeks, bartenders, locals and gaijin. Among them was an impressively-bearded Norwegian called Halvor who I could tell instantly knew his way around my side of the premises: the raised eyebrows as I tried to dispense snacks and position the correct bottle in front of the right drinker spoke volumes.

He began telling me of his bar in Oslo called Fuglen [] which operates as a top-end coffee house (though not in the Dutch sense) during the day, then transforms itself into a bar at night. What’s more, it is furnished with vintage Scandi design pieces, all of which are for sale. Halvor tells me that he is opening a new branch, which doesn’t surprise me, the whole mixing and matching concept is genius. When I asked him where, I was expecting to say it would be in Stavanger or Stockholm. “Here in Tokyo,” he replied. “in Shibuya.” It might seem crazed, but Japan is the perfect place for this hyper-modern concept.

"Life isn’t compartmentalised, it is filled with coffee beans and tea leaves, whisky and gin"

Tempted though I was post shift to go next door to Hair of the Dogs with my new friends, the 45th floor of the Ritz-Carlton was calling, because Alessandro Palazzi of London’s Duke’s Hotel was doing a stint, wheeling his trolley across the thickly-carpeted floor of that vast space dispensing his signature Martinis (Sipsmith) and Vespers (No3). As any whisky industry person will tell you, the night should always start with gin (but never more than three). He was over as one of the international guests at the inaugural Tokyo International Bar Show (aka TIBS) the new incarnation of Whisky Live, Tokyo.

There were numerous reasons for the evolution to TIBS but it boils down to one simple fact: people may love whisky deeply, but most don’t drink it exclusively.

At the show I was invited to co-present a class with Shinji Fukuyo Suntory’s chief blender at which he launched two new single malts from Yamazaki and Hakushu. Neither of the new arrivals carries an age statement and both are sublime. The Yamazaki benefiting from some young spirit aged in wine barrels and judicious additions of heavily-sherried 25 Years Old; the Hakushu retaining its classic freshness with drifts of light smoke and, like its stablemate, a mid-palate fleshed out by some older stock.

Why the move? It helps ease the pressure on stocks, but it also allows Suntory to speak to a new whisky drinker. “We have seen the success of the HiBall,” said Shinji, “but when we asked these drinkers why they had started to drink whisky, quite often they said they didn’t know they were, they were just drinking a ‘HiBall’.”

Why did they say that? Because people are no longer just whisky drinkers, they are browsers, grazers, pickers. They drink something because they like the taste. They also want to be intrigued and they can be converted.

Life isn’t compartmentalised, it is filled with coffee beans and tea leaves, whisky and gin, and fine furniture. It is what TIBs was about, a reflection of this Fuglen-style eclecticism.