WM-J has been to Kyoto many times and though each period spent there was short, it was always sweet, mostly thanks to the friendliness of the bars. Many of the schemes which emerged in WM-J and at Whisky Live started over drams in the late-lamented Horii’s Bar, long conversations over the future of whisky have taken place in secretive elegant salons attended by maiko (Kyoto for geisha).
Then there’s K6. It strikes us that if Tokyo’s bartending revolves around Ginza, then Kyoto’s has K6 as its central point with many bartenders now with their own bars having started training there.
This time however we went in search of enlightened refreshment elsewhere, though we did get a chance to chat to Konishi-san, the eminence of K6, to get his take on the Kyoto scene. “It’s more fun now that it was when I started 16 years ago,” he says. “There are more quality bartenders working here and if you compare Kyoto with Tokyo I’d say that there is the same quality of drinks.” He did however assert one important fact - that Kyoto drinkers are “resistant to trends. People want to drink what they want here.”
With that impression of a knowledgeable, opinionated drinker in its ears WM-J headed to the 30-seater Cordon Noir, run by the enthusiastic Ono-san. Cordon Noir has been open for 18 years, but has changed its ethos since Ono-san arrived four years ago. “I love Scotch whisky,” he says preparing a Rosebank Highball (now there’s class) “so I changed it from a standard cocktail bar to a whisky specialist.” In that period he has built up a range of 850 bottles split evenly between owners’ bottlings and independents, but it’s Highball which is dominating, made here with Hibiki 12.
It strikes WM-J that Highball, while the ideal summer drink might lose some of its cooling, thirst-quenching appeal in the cold winter months. It transpires that Ono-san’s been giving this some thought. “People’s palates change during the year, so I’ll adjust the amount of soda and alter the carbonation by more or less stirring. Rosebank is a great summer whisky, but autumn for me is more a whisky like Lochside -it’s got a flavour like English tea and that’s the flavour of autumn for me.”
Smart, perceptive bartending.
We head across the river to Gion and Bar El Tesoro. When this stop was first mentioned, WM-J immediately expected tequila to take centre stage, but names can be deceiving in Japan. On entering this large L-shaped basement there seems to be naught but whisky. Hundreds of bottles of whisky.
“Tequila? No,” laughs owner Yuya-san, “I liked the name because this place is ‘my treasure’.” He is one of a number of former K6 barkeeps who have gone out on their own and he opened his treasure chest four years ago. Tonight, this bare-floored, vintage looking space is filled with relaxed chatting customers.
“It took about 18 months to start working,” he says. “but now I have had to expand, it was half the size it is now when I opened.” It is clear that in Kyoto the network is important and that once you are within a loop, unseen to the visitor, then your success is, if not assured, then more likely. “There’s a wide range of clientele,” says Yuya-san, “We’re now getting maiko coming.” This, in Gion terms, is a marker of having made it.
The single malts are equally split between owner and independent bottlings and a personal preference for the quirkier end of Speyside: Convalmore, Linkwood and Mortlach. Plumping for the middle one, WM-J expresses some surprise that the peat-centric trend doesn’t see to be as strong in Kyoto. “Consumers are turning to lighter malts,” says Yuya-san. “Islay malt was popular - maybe too popular in the past!” Does that mean Kyoto is an opinion former? “No! Tokyo is first - in fact Ginza is first. Then we get the information.”
For all these protestations though, only two bars in, WM-J is already sensing that there’s a clearly a Kyoto sensibility at work and it is doing things its own way.
The next stop, though no more than a few seconds away is a complete contrast. Bar Satonaka is located on the third floor of a building that’s home to Sfera, the Kyoto-Milan design firm. Encased in a finely perforated metal screen with a Sakura blossom pattern, the aesthetic is clear, modernism with a very Japanese accent, something which is underlined as you enter the bar through a high-sheen winding black corridor that manages to be both calming and slightly disorienting. It deposits you on the end of a long black box containing the softly lit bar, a few chairs and a window giving a glimpse of a terrace garden. It’s like being in a lacquer box.
It strikes WM-J as it watches head bartender Hirahara Genji skillfully craft a Manhattan that each of the evening’s bars has been approached from the side. In the west the bar itself is normally in front of you. In Kyoto however the fact that you have to slide along the bar makes it less confrontational and more exploratory. There might be very practical reason for this: long thin rooms, the need for the longest wall to hold the large number of bottles, but the orientation of the room changes the dynamics of the space. Is it coincidence that in Kyoto you enter a bar in the same indirect fashion as you do a tea house or temple?
WM-J turns to concentrate on Genji-san’s approach to a Manhattan Rocks: a splash of Angostura and Noilly Rouge over the ice ball, followed by Jim Beam rye, then a small shot of the vermouth on the top. A slow stir and that’s it. We sit and sip. This is a bar for contemplation. High-concept, but with high-class drinks. A bartenders’ bartender’s bar.
Here’s a question for you. If you had spent your life running a small vegetable shop and were nearing retirement age what would you do with the space? Sell it? Rent it out or turn it into a bar and teach yourself how to mix drinks? That’s what the owner of Chez Quasimodo did in 2005.
The DIY aesthetic runs to the decor. The far wall is occupied by two enormous Tannoy speakers from which filters cool French jazz. The Gallic theme is echoed in the furniture behind the bar - bulky antique western dressers, marble-topped sideboards and display cabinets on which (and in which) is found the booze, and the vinyl. Even his natty moustache seems part of the vibe.
Eclectic is the word, but what seems on first glance to be a random selection of intriguing bottles turns out on closer inspection to be a well-chosen and highly personal selection, made easier by the hand-written menus.
His Manhattan uses both Old Overholt rye and Old Grandad with the Noilly Rouge. “It’s not fragrant enough with just the rye,” he explains. It works, showing a rapid learning curve. “This was my first experience at bartending,” he smiles, though he lets slip later that he did run a jazz club. And are you enjoying it? “Hmm!” he laughs. “I’m now visiting more bars and speaking to other bartenders about whiskies and cocktails.” His pragmatic approach, I want a bar... I’ll open one... I’ll learn on the job, has paid off. The drinks are good, his company even better.
Yuya-san’s observation that a generational shift is taking place in Kyoto is borne out at WM-J’s next stop, Bar K-ya. There’s more than just a clutch of young local bartenders creating their own spaces, the Kyoto scene is now attracting incomers from Tokyo. That’s what K-ya’s head bartender did, leaving Bar Talisker in Ginza and settling here.
Recently refurbished, K-ya is now a classical example of the Kyoto bar aesthetic. A long, blonde wood corridor lined with black and white pebbles (echoes of Zen gardens) leads, obliquely into a high-ceilinged light room with garden. Behind the bar is a comprehensive whisky library with most bottlings coming from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
We order drinks, a flamed espresso made with Laphroaig (and served with Laphroaig-infused chocolate), a spiced Moscow Mule and a jasmine and apple-accented Linkwood.
Tonight there’s a chatty young crowd sipping on a wide variety of drinks: rocks, neat, mixed, spirits and wine. We look out of the panoramic window across the garden to the private room that’s modelled on a tea house. This bar could be nowhere else.
There’s another Tokyo bartender who has returned home, to the amazement of his former colleagues in Ginza. “Tsubokura-san? He could have been the King of Ginza,” said one, still baffled by the decision. Maybe he should come and visit Rocking Chair.
A partly-screened zig-zag entrance gives you no doubt that you are in Kyoto. On your left, down a flight of steps is a fireplace surrounded by rocking chairs for cigar smokers. On your right, the main bar, large, airy with muted lighting which accentuates the cool green of the garden behind a large picture window.
Half of the bar is taken up with whiskies, the rest to other spirits so it makes sense to blend the two and get Tsubokura-san to mix a Bobby Burns which he does with a twist, adding 5ml of Carpano Antica Formula to the 15ml of Cinzano Rosso, the former adding depth, the latter fragrance. The whisky is Glenlivet 12, “malts have more character,” he explains as he finishes the drink whose glass, a classy touch this, sits on a lit disc on the bar, adding a touch of theatre to the proceedings.
So, what’s it like being back home? “Tokyo people are always in a big hurry, while people take their time here. People drink quicker in Tokyo because they are looking at their watches. Here they can relax. We might sell slightly fewer drinks, but the customers are happier.”
WM-J settles into a rocking chair and looks at the garden. Kyoto never reveals itself immediately, there is always something hidden, behind a screen, around a corner, beneath a tree, behind a bar.
It’s worth the search.