In the past, the name of this Tokyo district would either make Western businessmen smile in a wistful manner or cough in an embarassed fashion if their wives (or company accountants) were within earshot. The ‘entertainment’ element still exists, but in the past few years the area has had a makeover with the building of Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown, two massive and very chi-chi retail and hotel destinations. Around them has sprouted some of the city’s greatest bars: Cask with its 2,500 old whiskies, top cocktail destination Vodka Tonic and the glorious Gothic gloom of Ne Plus Ultra. For this drinker’s guide, Whisky Mag Japan’s team went to seek out some of the newer destination bars. Enjoy.
If you have a bar on the 45th floor of Tokyo’s tallest hotel you might be tempted to call it The Sky Lounge or some such, but that isn’t the Ritz-Carlton style. To them, this space at the apex of the 280m Midtown building is simply ‘The Bar’, an open space dotted with tables and cabinets arranged around two water features, each the size of many of the city’s watering holes.
Hotel bars can be anonymous spaces. Used by residents as a meeting point before they head out to dinner, a place for business meetings, or refuges for lonely jetlagged travellers, they can lack a sense of identity. Here, however, that model has been broken.
“We are becoming a destination,” says bar supervisor Izumi-san. “The view is the initial attraction, but then people discover what we have in stock and they stay.” WM-J’s eyes follow his to the large bottle-keep cabinet with one shelf of Owner’s Cask Yamazaki, another of the same distillery’s Mizunara Wood, as well as an entire shelf of Macallan in various iterations, not to mention a range of other, top-end, malts and blends.
Amazingly for a hotel bar, only 20 per cent of its custom comes from guests, while regulars make up 40 per cent of its day-to-day turnover. “In the past year revenue has doubled,” says Izumi-san, “and that is down to the staff and their training.” They are encouraged to know the stock and guide newcomers through whiskies, opening bottles and leading them in nosing sessions. “By communicating and aiding, the bottle keep has doubled in the past year as well. They drive this place.”
The whisky menu is, unsurprisingly, focused at the top end: Lagavulin, for example, is in its 12 Years Old cask strength limited edition; Laphroaig is the 10 Years Old cask strength, blends are a minimum of 17 years. “Our aim as a hotel is to attract the top 10 per cent of customers, so this isn’t a place for 12 Years Old Macallan, it’s for 18 Years Old or older.”
Izumi-san smiles and leaves WM-J looking at the menu. There’s only one thing to drink at this height, in these surroundings. “A highball please and make it with Hakushu 25 Years Old, thanks.” When you’re at this height what’s ¥8,000?
Reality soon kicks in 280m below as WM-J turn right at Roppongi Crossing and up the narrow stairs to Abbot’s Choice. Outside, the momentum of the evening is building: hustlers, hostesses, wide-eyed expats, salarymen; all of humanity in all its infinite variety seems to throng the dazzlingly-lit streets. Up in Abbot’s Choice things are just a little more calm around its high bar with green leather topped stools, booths and a clutter of drinks memorabilia. The beers are a mix of imported and domestic. Customers sit with elbows on the bar sipping the froth on their Guinness. Indie rock plays.
All is not as it seems. Yes, this is a pub, but behind the bar are three shelves of serious whiskies, four deep, that’s 250 bottles in total. So who drinks in here? The evening starts with salarymen and foreigners but later, it into a refuge for off-shift bartenders and restaurant staff. By late we mean very late. It shuts at 7am.
Every city has a place like this, the drinking den where the workers come to chill and swap stories after their shift. Few in WM-J’s experience however have the whisky selection of Abbot’s Choice, but this is Roppongi and here the bartenders know their booze.
We get talking to the bartender. “Roppongi has changed. It’s still crazy, just a different crazy to the old days.” So what happens when Abbot’s Choice closes?Where does he go? “There’s places. This is Roppongi, there’s always somewhere.”
WM-J leaves the chaos of the Crossing and heads towards Tokyo Tower. The crowds thin and the pace slows. We turn off the main drag and stand outside an old house. It’s an unlikely place for a bar, but unlikeliness is going to be the theme for the rest of the evening. This old building with its tree-filled courtyard contains an Italian restaurant, surprising enough, on the ground floor, but few of its customers even realise that above them is a quiet salon bar scented with aromatic woods and incense.
The bar itself is in a tiny room, it’s table service only, and has a decent selection of drams with a strong SWMS range alongside favourite OBs.
Bar-L is the appropriate name for an L-shaped space. This strikes WM-J as being like a cross between a forgotten gentleman’s club (and not the sort of gentleman’s clubs you get at the other end of the strip) and the lounge of a discreet country house hotel. An Old Fashioned seems to be the most approriate drink to order and well made it is too. Bar-L is for quiet gentlemanly conversation over wine, whisky and cigars, a discreet haven after the frenzy of the strip.
Bar !? looks like a bar, it has a beautifully polished tree trunk as the counter, there are stools, sofas and bottles aplenty of booze, but owner/bartender Yukiko Ono just isn’t quite sure. “What would you like?” she asks. “I have to warn you that I can mix some drinks, but there’s others I just can’t make.” WM-J keeps it easy: neat whisky, Longrow CV HiBall, gin and tonic. She sighs with relief. “I know how to make these!”
So what’s the story behind this somewhat eccentirc approach? She laughs. “I can only do one thing at a time, so is it story or drink?I’d go for the drink, otherwise you won’t get them until tomorrow if I start talking.” We sit in silence as she delivers the goods.
To cut a long and entertaining story short, she and some friends invested in the bar, but the bartender then left, the friends pulled out and she was left on her own with no formal bartender training. “That’s why it’s called !?”
There is a captivating naivety about her approach which, after the perfection of so many bars, is hugely welcome. She doesn’t like groups, “too many people all ordering at the same time!” preferring single drinkers or couples. “I prefer just one lady by herself who then recommends me to other friends. It’s my bar. I want people I like.” It’s a bar built on word of mouth and on her personality and determination. “When people leave happy then it’s good.”
By those standards, WM-J’s reaction makes !? a great bar.
Ono-san’s existential dilemma over whether her bar is a bar or not, is nothing compared to the final stop on the trawl. Don’t get me wrong. Roku Nana is a bar, but it’s a bar which doesn’t want to tell you that fact, or advertise it. Where it is I cannot say, apart from the fact that it’s down a back street and up some stairs in an anonymous office block. Inside, it’s a black space with a number of separated areas dotted with low seats and tables. If you want discretion then you have come to the right place.
WM-J looks through the classic cocktail list and settles in with a Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Negroni, all perfectly made. There’s some serious bartending skills at work here and a well-chosen, eclectic whisky list. For all its being the hardest to find stop of the evening, Roku Nana turns out to be the busiest bar of the night. “Why is it secret?Because, if you say where it is everyone wants to come”, though it also appears that by not saying where you doesn’t exactly harm business either. Owner, Zetton Group, is an intelligent organisation dealing in working with the right crowd and giving them minimalist design, understated glamour and great drinks.
WM-J heads to the roof. 280m above, a few blocks away are the light of the Ritz-Carlton and a different world. On the way out, the manageress hands me an envelope on which is printed Roku Nana’s name and a telephone number, but no address.