The perfect place

In a two-part feature, the Whisky Magazine Japan team takes us to Northern Japan to look at the bars and food on offer
In a season of snow, what route better to take than the long road to the north of Japan and the island of Hokkaido. It exerts a powerful call on all who love open spaces, calm and exploration. It also plays an important role in whisky - the location which Masataka Taketsuru deemed the most perfect for distillation in Japan. But, as we find out, there is more to this place than just whisky.
Friendliness, a keen eye for quality - and a well-priced drink; and a wide variety of types of bar are the keys to a night out in Sapporo. There is something here to satisfy everyone's requirements.

Nikka Bar (Akita Mitsuhide)

Minami4 Nishi3 No.3 Green Building 2nd Floor, Chuo-ku, Sapporo
Tel +81 11 552 8766

Unsurprisingly, the Nikka logo is prominent in Sapporo. The distiller’s eponymous drinking destination is a large, modern, quasi-lounge style bar which sits on the first floor on the corner building which sits on the border between the shopping area of Odori and the entertainment zone of Susukino. A low bar takes up the length of the space, while a chill-out area and two private rooms make up the rest. Chandeliers of empty sample bottles gives a cleverly witty touch to the decor. It was first opened 30 years ago, but has undergone a slight revamp to attract a younger clientele.

Although bar manager Akita Mitsuhide says the view makes it a popular destination for tourists in the winter, most of the customers are local residents, predominantly male between 30 and 50. That younger crowd is however beginning to come in, he claims.
The range includes some single casks as well as the core range, while Scotch comprises the Asahi-imported range. “Sapporo is different to Tokyo in so many ways,” he says. “There, people spend money crazily, but here they are more careful. Prices are incredibly low compared to Tokyo. If you tried to charge Ginza prices for a cocktail here it wouldn’t work.”

Bar Yamazaki

Minami3 Nishi3 Katsumi Building 4th Floor, Chuo-ku, Sapporo
Tel +81 11 221 7363

One of not just Sapporo’s but Japan’s most famous bartenders, Yamazaki-san has run his small, old-style lounge bar for 53 years. With thick carpet, flocked wallpaper, dark wood and little booths it is a reminder of an older way of making drinks. “The biggest change in my time here is the number of female customers,” he says. “That would never have happened in the old days. When I started it was groups of men bringing geishas, now the women come in on their own.”

And what, WM-J wonders would he recommend to them? The answer is immediate. Classic cocktails, “or one of my own. Would you like to try?” He mixes vodka, Amaretto, vermouth and Green Chartreuse. “A Sapporo. Enjoy.” It works.

We chat about the old days and how whisky consumption has come full circle. “The HiBall was an American way of drinking,” he says. “My clientele would prefer it Scotch style – with water. That’s how Taketsuru-san drank his whisky when he came here.” He pauses knowing that the name had produced the right reaction. “Yes, he’d have Nikka Gold, ‘Scottish style’.”

What would his advice be to a young bartender just starting out? “Don’t push your favourite drink to the customer. The most important thing is to find the customer’s favourite. Also, be friendly, but don’t get too close to the customer. We are like carpenters. They can get into the palace and talk to the emperor, but they are not the emperor.” He laughs and prepares to make another drink.

Bar Ikkei

Minami6 Nishi4 Jasmac Sapporo No.6 2nd Floor, Chuo-ku, Sapporo
Tel +81 11 563 0017

If Bar Yamazaki is the perfect example of an old-style way of drinking, then Bar Ikkei is opening up the possibilities of what a 21st century bar can offer. Open for four years, this is a cool, modern space with a curved bar seating 22 people with a serious selection of whisky. In fact, the longer you look the more intriguing it becomes, with a large range of rare, vintage Nikka bottlings, all open to try and sourced by owner Ikkei Honma’s travels around some of the smaller Hokkaido liquor stores.

He fixes WM-J two Nikka HiBalls, one with Yoichi, the other with Super Nikka -smoky and subtle, or softer and fruitier accompanied by a selection of hand-made chocolates which he makes at home after he closes the bar.

His skill has led to an intriguing approach to educating people about whisky. Every drink is accompanied by a small dish of boldly-flavoured food -home-smoked cheese and salmon, fried pork in whisky sauce. “I’m educating about whisky through food matching. I serve food with a strong taste, therefore people like to try it with stronger-tasting alcohol, so instead of Hiballs I’m using neat whisky!

He pours WM-J an old Nikka G&G from the 1970s and we discuss Taketsuru as its thick, olive oil like texture flows gently over the tongue. A fusing of the old with innovative forward thinking.

Bar Brora

Minami5 Nishi3 Latin Building 3rd Floor, Chuo-ku, Sapporo
Tel 81-11 531 7433

The quiet atmosphere of Bar Ikkei could not be in greater contrast to the raucous welcome which greets WM-J when it arrives at the next destination, Bar Brora. The bar is packed with 17 regulars, all of them discussing whisky, swapping glasses and obviously enjoying each other’s company. This square room is ruled over by Tetsuya Yamada who controls proceedings from his cockpit, backed with a selection of around 600 single malts “at the last count - I have more at home!”.

It’s clear that Bar Brora is more than a bar, it is a whisky club which has been open every night since 2002 - Sapporo’s version of Campbelltoun Loch if you like -but there is no elitism at work here. Yes, there are rare whiskies available, but the emphasis is on enjoyment. If a newbie needs educating Yamada-san unrolls a map from the rafters, picks up his lecturer’s pointer and delivers a lesson.

WM-J starts with a 45 Years Old independent bottling of a whisky from Campbeltown which mixes truffle oil, hickory smoke, black Chinese tea and soft fruits. It’s then time to help choose a cask of Bowmore which the bar is intending in bottling and then a Cognac and saffron-accented 32 Years Old Clynelish from German bottler, Whisky Doris. More glasses are being passed around - someone has started a vertical of Longmorn, another cracks a joke.

It’s a normal night in Bar Brora, one of Japan’s unmissable whisky shrines.

Bow Bar

Minami4 Nishi2, 7-5 Hoshi Building 8th Floor, Chuo-ku, Sapporo
Tel x+81 11 532 1212

One of Edinburgh’s greatest whisky bars -or to be more accurate whisky pubs - is the Bow Bar and it was from there that Junya Homma took inspiration for this, his solo Sapporo venture. Unlike its Edinburgh namesake however, Homma-san’s bar is a calm, hushed space which is dedicated to some of the greatest drinks in the world.

The whisky selection is both large and deeply impressive, being almost exclusively comprised of old, rare bottlings. For example, there’s a bottle of Samaroli’s legendary Bowmore ‘Bouquet’ 1966 on the bar [WM-J is one of those who feels that this is one of the finest single malts ever bottled].

“It started when I was working in Tokyo,” he explains. “I tried the old Ardbeg 10 Years Old and it inspired me to go to Scotland and look around distilleries. I decided at the end of it I wanted my own bar.”

This is very much a personal selection, not one driven by commercial need. As WM-J sips an OB of sherried Glen Grant 10 Years Old from the 1970s, Homma-san talk of his other loves in drink – the complete collection of Romano Levi grappas which line the walls, his passion for vintage port and grower Cognac and Armagnac.

“This is a local place and while these are quality spirits, I want to keep a drinking style which isn’t too formal. I just want to see customers having fun with alcohol. There are many places like this is Tokyo, but not everyone in Sapporo can go there - so I’m here to show them the best in the world.” It seems to sum up perfectly the open-hearted, friendly Sapporo attitude.