Turning Japanese

Whisky tasting Tokyo style
By Stefan van Eycken
Tokyo is considered to be one of the best cities in the world for the thirsty whisky enthusiast. One such enthusiast, who now runs a bar of his own in Kyushu, told me he spent a decade in Tokyo in his younger years and set himself the task of visiting as many bars as he could. He visited three bars a day on average, and never the same bar twice. Ten years and a few thousand bars later, he gave up. Continuing would have ruined him - physically and financially.

There are bars in every nook and cranny of this great metropolis and in particularly busy areas like Ginza, you can even go barhopping without leaving the building. You just take the elevator up or down a level and there's another bar, and another, and another... The vast majority of bars in Japan are tiny - seating between 8 and 20 people - and in most cases, the person behind the stick is the owner of the place. The emphasis tends to be on peace and quiet, and bars function kind of like a 'second living room.' Actually, make that an 'ideal living room', as most Tokyoites don't have much of a living room at home.

One warning: many visitors from abroad are shocked to see that smoking is still allowed in restaurants and bars in Japan. Non-smoking bars are the exception rather than the rule. Even at specialist bars with legendary old bottlings, you may find yourself surrounded by second-hand smoke. The best way to deal with this is to see it as something akin to Tantric Buddhism, where meditation is practised in unpleasant or difficult circumstances. The alternative is missing out on the best bar scene in the world.

1. Malt Bar South Park

Nakano 2-1-2-B1, Nakano-ku

This bar should be packed every single night, but it isn't and the only reason for that is that it's a bit 'far' - a 15-minute walk - from the closest station (Nakano). Tokyoites are spoiled. They don't like to walk more than three minutes from a station to a bar. Well, that leaves more whisky for people who don't mind a brisk walk and a bit of fresh air. Owner/bartender Osamu Futakata used to be a collector until things got out of hand a bit. The only solution was to start a bar, so he did - but he kept his day job (in the field of car racing), too. Talk about dedication and hard work. Among the gems at this bar are four Owner's Cask Yamazaki bottlings selected by Futakata. If Yamazaki is not your thing, don't worry, there are 1,500 other bottles waiting for some love. It's a non-smoking establishment, as well, which is the exception rather than the rule in Japan. What's not to love?

2. Shot Bar Zoetrope

Gala Bldg#4 3F, Nishi-Shinjuku 7-10-14, Shinjuku-ku

Zoetrope is all about Japanese whisky. There's also a smattering of Japanese rum, grappa and other assorted oddities. This place is an institution and nobody knows the field better than owner/bartender Atsushi Horigami. He's a walking encyclopedia of Japanese whisky. The ambience is one-of-a-kind, too: old silent movies are projected on a screen and randomly coupled with (more modern) soundtrack music. There aren't many bars where you can watch a Busby Berkeley choreography accompanied by some Morricone spaghetti western music while sipping on some rare Japanese whiskies from yesteryear. The bar is in all the travel guides and deservedly so, but this means that, on an average night, you're more likely to be surrounded by foreigners than by Japanese punters. Zoetrope doesn't take credit cards, so get some cash before taking the elevator up to the third floor.

3. Bar the Society

Park Hotel Tokyo, Higashi-Shimbashi 1-7-1, Minato-ku

This is the home of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) in Japan so there's a huge shelf chock-full of emerald green bottles with number codes. Don't worry, the staff will hand you a list so you can easily decipher what's what. Do ask for the list with Japanese SMWS releases. There is probably nowhere else in the world where you can find as many available for tasting as here - not even at the headquarters in Edinburgh. That said, the bar has much more to offer than that, not in the least the amazing creations of cocktail designer Takayuki Suzuki and his staff. Most whisky industry folks from abroad stay at the Park Hotel when they're in Tokyo for work. Visit Bar the Society and you'll understand why.

4. Rockfish

Dai-26 Polestar Bldg. 2F, Ginza 7-2-14, Chuo-ku

Rockfish is a one-trick pony, but what a trick. This place is all about the highball, made Samboa-style. That means: no ice, glass chilled, Suntory Kakubin chilled with soda and a twist of lemon. Ninety per cent of what they serve is exactly that. There's a long menu of appetisers to go along with your highball(s). In fact, owner/bartender Kazunari Maguchi wrote a book on how to quickly fix great appetisers to accompany your tipple of choice. You're in good hands here. The bar is popular with salarymen, keen to 'refresh' themselves a bit before heading home, but it's also the perfect first stop on a bar-hopping tour of Ginza. They open at 3pm on weekdays and 2pm at the weekend and on holidays so it's also an attractive option if you want something a bit stronger for afternoon tea.

5. The Mash Tun

Mikasa Bldg. B 2F, Kami-Osaki 2-14-3, Shinagawa-ku

The Mash Tun has a very loyal fan base, which includes many whisky enthusiasts abroad who can't conceive of a visit to Tokyo without stopping by for an extensive dramming session. Owner/bartender Toru Suzuki has a lot to do with that. He knows whisky inside out and is one of those rare hosts who is 1) truly enthusiastic about what's on his shelves, 2) goes out of his way to source really stunning bar-exclusive bottlings and 3) has lots of really meaningful things to say about the liquid he pours… if you're interested in talking about what you're about to have/having, that is. If you're not, he'll leave you alone, so it's a win-win, whichever camp you fall into.

6. M's Bar & Caffe

Chigusa Bldg. 1F, Yaraicho 118, Shinjuku-ku

M's (short for Miura's, the owner) is located in Kagurazaka, one of the most attractive neighbourhoods of Tokyo, famed for its preserved historical atmosphere. The streets are littered with fine eateries and small bars so M's can be one stop on an epicurean journey through the neighbourhood. No need to do research - just stroll around and let serendipity take over. That said, there is plenty to keep you glued to the counter at M's. The bar is a bit under-the-radar, so there are lots of independent bottlings from yesteryear on the shelves. He even has a 'Port Ellen corner' with a couple dozen rare bottlings from the iconic closed distillery at unbeatable prices. The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable and they are more than happy to bring out the ladder to reach behind the front rows of bottles on shelves high up behind the counter. Do ask because that's where the treasures are hidden.

7. Bar BenFiddich

Yamatoya Bldg. 9F, Nishi-Shinjuku 1-13-7, Shinjuku-ku

This is hands down the best cocktail bar in Japan - which is saying something - and word has been getting around so it's harder to get into these days. Owner/bartender Hiroyasu Kayama makes every single drink with extreme care and precision, so when the bar is full (18 seats), it may take a while for your drink to get to you. It'll be worth the wait though. Kayama's bar has the feel of an alchemist's workshop, with infusions, spices, botanicals and old liqueurs dominating the backbar. This is a guy who makes his own 'Campari' right in front of you, using cochineal beetles. That is the level of artistry we're talking about. Every drink is created in the ecstasy of the moment based on what the customer is in the mood for and years of 'R&D'. I go to this bar at least once a week and have never been offered the same cocktail twice.

8. J's Bar

Aoi Bldg. 2F, Nishi-Ikebukuro 1-34-5, Toshima-ku

This bar is small but it's got a lot going for it: it's just a few minutes walk from one of the biggest stations in Tokyo, the prices are unbeatable and it's non-pretentious and cozy. Also, most of the bottles are fresh off the bottling line. In fact, owner/bartender Hajime Hasumura sometimes manages to get his hands on the latest releases - mostly from independent bottlers - before they're available in retail. (Don't ask how!) The great thing about this is that if you find yourself really enjoying a particular dram, chances are you may still be able to pick up a bottle in a liquor shop around town. Obviously, this doesn't apply to blink-and-you-miss-it Japanese whisky, although he does have some of that available by the glass, too. Bottles don't last long here, which is a good thing as you don't have to worry you're drinking the dregs of a bottle that was opened years ago.