Our destination is Tokyo’s most upscale and international district, The Ginza, though bar wise even this designer label heaven is changing. What was very much a weekday, or week night, destination is now becoming a weekend one as well, with a change in clientele.What used to be high-class hostess bar territory is now full of a new generation of bars catering for a new generation of drinkers, who want anything from mojitos to fruit cocktails to single malts. Ginza is on the move.
Ginza – Part 1
The Shimbashi Loop
There are two ways in which you can approach an evening’s whisky drinking in The Ginza.You throw yourself into the middle of the action and pause for a second, dazzled by the glitz, the lights and the neon glittering off the diamonds in the windows, or you slowly introduce yourself to it, become gently absorbed by its mix of high fashion, high rollers and secret bars.
The first of our loops, each of which takes in a quartet of bars, takes this second approach.
This small, cosy bar is the perfect place to start the evening’s wanderings. Seating 14 people around its dark wood L-shaped bar it has an immediate warm familiarity.The malt selection may be small compared to other sites, around 100 bottles predominantly from independent bottlers, but they have been chosen with care. Where space it at a premium and the clientele is varied you have to hand-pick a selection which will still allow you to cover all options.
This approach is typical of Ginza bars.They may hold a great selection of whiskies, but they are more than just ‘whisky bars’. Drinkers here are as likely to sit down and ask for a cocktail as they will be to order a rare malt.
For example, when I visited Satin Doll the only other occupant (it was early!) was a kimono-clad lady, maybe the Satin Doll herself, drinking a White Lady, I went for a soda-wari with Longrow CV to kick off, followed by a 1969 Longmorn.
A relative newcomer on the Ginza scene (it opened in 2002), Satin Doll, is named after the Duke Ellington song and is the perfect discreet place for the early-evening sharpener before an epic whisky trek.
That said, we would have happily stayed until last orders at 2am, but the road called.
After leaving Satin Doll, turn right then duck down the first alleyway (immediately after Pierre Montee.) Walk past Yakitori Toncho to the main street. Opposite you on the first floor is our second stop.
Though it has a slightly tricky entrance (important if you are doing this in reverse order) Bar Fal is another classic Ginza hybrid of classy cocktail bar with a serious whisky slant. Punters have been sitting on these stools, jammed tight to the blond wood for a decade now.This is a corridor style bar, where you are in direct eye contact with the barkeep.
Like most of the Ginza bars, Fal unlocks its door at 6pm and stays open until 2am (though it’s closed Sunday) which gives you plenty of time to peruse an excellent independent bottler-heavy selection.The soda-wari acclimatisation continued here, as did the Longmorn test, the bartender’s response being a plump 31 Years Old (distilled 1976) from Malcolm Pride.
The barkeep notes how Ginza is changing. He is noticing a falling-off of the hostess trade and a noticeable rise in the number of younger women now coming in to drink whisky, a general rise in Scotch single malts among Japanese drinkers and more gaijin (Japanese for foreigner) coming in to look for Japanese whisky, of which Bar Fal has a good selection, including Suntory’s Chita and Nikka’s Coffey grains.This is a worthwhile stop.
Leave Fal, turn right to the end of the block, then first left and then go five blocks on. On the basement entrance of the second building you’ll see a Scottish flag. Go downstairs. You are in.
Here the 19 seats are arranged along a green lit, dark wood bar. The vintage glasses, the decor all suggest that ice blocks have been patently carved here for 50 years. In fact, until 1993 this was a snack bar. 15 years is, however, a long time in this part of the city where only the best survive.This was one of the bars which opened when a generation of cocktail bartenders went solo, triggering a new wave of bars.
After our introduction via two whisky cocktail hybrid bars, Talisker is more heavily geared towards the whisky aficionado with 1,000 whiskies in stock, of which 150 are open at any one time with a heavy preference for independent bottlings. This time, the Longmorn test was answered with a subtle 1969 from Gordon & MacPhail. That said, cocktails are growing in popularity, both classic and innovative creations including The Bannockburn which mixes smoky Islay with tomato juice, serving a new clientele of younger people, often female and offsetting the decline in the hostess trade.
We search the shelves for Talisker. “Actually,”says the cheery and effusive bartender, indicating his selections with a lecturer’s pointer,“I prefer Rosebank and Highland Park! I loved those old Talisker bottlings though and wanted to pick a name that people could remember.”
It has clearly worked. Talisker is a little whisky heaven in the Shimbashi Loop that’s open from 6pm to 2am.
Now, turn right, go past Ranzu until you reach a flower shop on the corner.This is the 26 Polestar Building and on the 4th floor is our final destination.
Bar High Five
Be careful which door you go through as you could easily end up with All Night Jasmine. None of the old-style look shared by our first three destinations here. Bar High Five is bright, light, and modern. The bartop is pale pine, the dozen or so customers are perched on tall stools, the conversation is loud, fun. This buzzing place is only five months old, but already is becoming a must-visit with the owner sharing many of his clients with his former employer, Star Bar. With a prominent position in the NBA, the owner’s solo career was out on hold while he travelled the bartending world judging and assisting at competitions.
Now, however, his mixology skills are strictly for the public’s benefit.This is very much the modern cocktail bar, but even though there is a heavier bias to official bottlings, there are still 300 whiskies of all descriptions in stock.The Longmorn test is by-passed here, now is the time to test cocktail making skills so it’s time for a Manhattan made with Evan Williams 12 Years Old and Dolin vermouth, both from the chiller. The drink is perfect. Around us the clientele are ordering mixed drink after mixed drinks all of which are made with accuracy, speed and great good humour. As a wake-up call it couldn’t be better.
Continue down the main drag (away from High Five) and you are back to Shimbashi Station.
Ginza – Part 2
The Ginza Loop
Our second loop begins with a cocktail or three before finishing in one of the world’s most remarkable whisky bars, and the train home.
This high ceilinged bar is an elegant way to start an evening’s entertainment in what is the top-end of the top-end of this most top-end of districts. Couture and designer label shops and flagship stores predominate here. As we arrive, there are black limousines disgorging executives at entrances to buildings outside which stand glamorous ladies clad in designer gowns. The evening will end with the same ladies leading the businessmen back to their cars and saying goodbye. In between the two events some may head into Ginza S for a sharpener.
If there is a more immaculately clad bartender in Tokyo than ‘CJ’ then Whisky Magazine has yet to clap eyes on him. Settle down beside the pale bar, scan the backlit shelves for bottles then look up to the mirrors reflecting your glass
(and head) back at you.
CJ worked at Arran distillery, (though hopefully he didn’t wear white tie and tails there) and, not surprisingly there’s a good selection from his Scottish home on show. It seems rude not to take advantage.The drinks are made with high-class precision.There’s no rush.The clientele who come to Ginza S are not nipping in for a swift dram they are here to savour the experience – and pay for it. As you would expect from its location, this is expense account territory, but also a must visit for sheer whisky enthusiasm.
It’s a 10 minute walk to our next stop, but the timing is important.
In our experience you want to arrive at Star Bar when it is almost full.This 25-seater basement bar is designed like an old style saloon,(though its only been open eight years) all thick leather upholstery, discreet alcoves and dark wood. It is the sort of bar where it is quite east to just settle in for the night.
I adhere to the theory that the best Japanese bars are manifestations of the bartender’s personality. Star Bar for all its adherence to the NBA’s impeccable classicism has a bonhomie and energy that emanates from owner Kishi-san.The whisky lover will find it a paradise with 200 bottles, predominantly independent, open at any one time and 600 held in reserve. Rare bottlings are a speciality with Kishi-san buying them by the case. Needless to say, the Longmorn test was passed with some ease.
Around me, the mixed clientele were sitting down to rare drams, beer, sherry rum or cocktails (White Ladies seemed to be going down a storm the last time we were there) , all delivered with great humour. Variety is the key here.The Manhattan (on rocks) was impeccably made, the ice block as clear as a pool giving a strange distortion to the cherry-red drink. Star is a place to meet, chat, and drink. It has the air of a local with a regular clientele.That means while it is open late, it is advisable to phone ahead at the weekend. A must-visit.
The next destination is, thankfully, very close. Climb the steps out of Star and across the road on the left is Opa-Site.
This too is a basement establishment with most of the 25 customers lined up along its beaten up bartop. This, as far as I am concerned is a good thing. I like bars upon which generations of elbows have rested. It’s a small, but real sign of quality. Opa is slightly more discreet than Star, but with equally excellent drinks. Like its neighbour the clientele is mixed, as is the selection of drinks being made.The cocktails stick to that great drinker, James H. Baker’s maxim, namely they should be short, strong and cold. Opa knows this, even if the rest of the world seems to have forgotten it.
There’s a hefty whisky selection with close to 250 on show and a reserve catalogue.
Friendly and welcoming, Opa is another must-see.
From Opa, go past the alleyways which nuzzle close to the tracks of Yurakucho station.The world of Cartier and and Chanel is long gone. It’s my advice that you take advantage of one of these noodle bars.You’ll need an energy boost to cope with the session which is about to unfold. Many is the time that I have said that I am only going to the next destination for one drink. Trust me, it’s impossible.
You are looking for a small sign pointing down an unprepossessing stairwell.You are entering whisky heaven.This is Campbelltoun Loch run by Nakamura-san and his wife as a tiny shrine to whisky.
The space is barely more than a corridor with a line of 10 seats rammed hard against a bartop which is already cluttered with bottles.You soon get to know your companions. Nakamura-san stands in a pit behind the bar, his head is often only just visible.
After the schooled perfection of the previous bars, this comes as a shock. Campbelltoun Loch isn’t a bar in the normal sense of the world, but a space dedicated to drink, in this case rare whisky.Here the bottle and the liquid in the glass is all-important.There’s no cocktails, there’s no beer, though there is for some reason Strongbow cider, just single malt.
Perch on your stool and gaze. Sometimes you’ll see what you want, though it is best to ask Nakamura-san what he would recommend. Name the distillery and it’s here.There could be 1,000 bottles here at any one time and the stock is continually being refreshed. Like any of these great bars Campbelltoun Loch is one of those time-warp places where great company and the amber nectar keeps the head clear and creates new friendships.
Head out to Yurakucho and home.