Spirit of Tokyo

I don't serve whisky highballs and if they want a drop of water in their whisky, I'll recommend a cheap one.

Akito Obama is a study of concentration. It’s about 11pm at Tokyo’s Hibiya Bar Whisky-S, tucked away in a basement in the Ginza district. Obama, the resident whisky master, places three Rubik’s Cube-size ice blocks into each of the four highball glasses lined up along the bar. Four precise measures of Suntory whisky follow. The cubes chime as Obama deftly stirs with a long bar spoon. Four ‘whisky highballs’, a signature drink in Japan’s bar scene, are then delivered to two young couples who are clearly enjoying their evening.

Beer is Japan’s most popular alcoholic drink. Whisky, on the other hand, has always competed with traditional tipples, such as sake and its distilled cousin shochu. But since the launch of the country’s first commercial distillery, Yamazaki, in 1923, the spirit has been growing in popularity.

Despite whisky’s status as a niche drink, Tokyo is a connoisseur’s paradise. It has a base of hardcore fans who view the drink with an extreme reverence, one that borders on obsession. Many of these whisky geeks have opened their own bars, hidden in dark corners of the city. These bars, most of which seat fewer than 10 patrons, are known for extensive collections of expensive and rare drops. Here, drams are served with an almost ceremonial air; don’t even think about dousing them in cola.

Best Blends

One of the most approachable specialist bars in the city, Hibiya Bar Whisky-S is operated by Suntory as a showcase for the company’s Japanese whiskies, which include Yamazaki single malts and Hibiki blended varieties that are multiple award-winners in different categories. “We have about 300 whiskies,” says Obama, “but the rarest is a Yamazaki 1981 Vintage Malt. It’s priceless.”

I am joined at the bar by Motoko Shimizu, a local photographer, and Hitomi Ota, a translator visiting from Osaka. We order the blending set. While whisky mixing is both a science and an art, customers here are given a head start. Shimizu, Ota and I are presented with a row of test tubes containing whiskies of various hues (40ml of a light malt base spirit, and three 20ml measures of sherry wood, malt and ‘estery’ spirit, which refers to chemical esters that release light, fruity, floral scents), as well as two small round flasks of oak and salt ‘seasoning’ spirits, a measuring glass and a list of recipes.

While Ota follows the blending formulas to the letter, Shimizu is more experimental, first sampling each dram straight from the test tube before a trial of one part light grain to one of malt. “Whisky is seen as a sophisticated drink in Japan,” she says between sips. “Its reputation is as a drink for older males, but this bar attracts a younger crowd.”

After some trial and error, I settle on my own concoction of 14 parts light grain to six of sweet sherry wood whisky, 5ml each of rich malt and estery, plus a dash of the oak and salt seasonings. It has all the fun of a child’s chemistry set but, with the kick of three standard drinks, this experiment is definitely for adults only.

Unadulterated Drams

Not far from Hibiya Bar Whisky-S, in a windowed shopfront on a busy lane, is one of Tokyo’s most extreme whisky establishments, Bar On. Over the past two decades of its operation, the proprietor, Koichi Tanigochi, has amassed a stock of about 3000 bottles. Yet there is not a Japanese whisky in sight. That’s because Tanigochi believes whisky must hail from Scotland and if you want soda water with your whisky, forget it. “I don’t serve whisky highballs,” the bar owner declares bluntly, “and if they want a drop of water in their whisky, I’ll recommend a cheap one. I can always recommend other bars to difficult or inappropriate customers.”

Bar On consists of a single narrow room and would comfortably seat 12 patrons. There is no telephone and no website. This evening, Ota and I are the only customers. The cover charge is ¥1000 (about $12). Tanigochi is unimpressed with our responses when quizzed on our whisky preferences. He scoffs at my middle-of-the-road taste and when Ota struggles to satisfy his demands she is presented with a French elderflower liqueur on ice, which she accepts ungrudgingly.

With so many whiskies on offer, I inquire whether he stocks any distilled in my birth year, 1976. Tanigochi dons his spectacles and snaps into action. Within a couple of minutes the bar is lined with a variety of 36-year-old bottles. After a short consultation, I choose a Glenlivet Signatory Vintage, aged for 24 years in a sherry butt and number 55 from a release of just 268 bottles. At about $24 per half dram, it is not cheap and, with an alcohol content of 57.7 per cent, it is a drink to be respected. The first sip scorches my throat. A more cautious approach to the liquid reveals rich caramel flavours hidden beneath the alcohol burn.

Despite Tanigochi’s uncompromising ways, his enthusiasm is almost childlike whenever the conversation turns to his collection of spirits, of which 80 per cent are single malt whiskies and the remainder are armagnacs and cognacs. Without any prompting, he continually rummages in the wooden cabinets above the bar to reveal treasures such as a 1967 Speymalt from the Macallan distillery and an A E Dor armagnac from 1902.

Obsessive Behaviour

Bar On is clearly a reflection of its owner’s personality and taste, and the same can be said for the starkly different Mauve, owned and operated by the equally idiosyncratic Hiroshi Aoki. Situated on a narrow, hilly street in swanky Shibuya, Mauve is a dimly lit, smoky bar that seats 14 patrons with little elbow room. In addition to a collection of about 1000 bottles of Scottish single malt, Mauve’s walls are lined with shelves of Aoki’s jazz, blues and rock LPs. With a wild crop of grey hair and a penchant for pipe smoking, Aoki and his bar have a laid-back, bohemian air. “We Japanese are obsessive about what we like,” he admits as he places a 1960 recording of Miles Davis, live in Stockholm, on the record player. In addition to a passion for whisky and music, Aoki is also a gun chef wh whips up small dishes in a little kitchen to the side whenever the mood takes him.

Mauve is frequented by loyal, local customers. When we enter the bar late one night midweek, the sole drinker is Mr Kato, a stylish black-suited advertising executive, who has arrived straight from work with his black leather briefcase. “This is a crazy bar,” says Kato, “but you should try his cooking: oysters gratin... his salads... everything he makes is dreamy.” Later that night, Kato is proved correct when our host cooks up small plates of delicious pan-fried duck breast with leek and spring onion.

Kato is soon joined at the bar by his high-school friend, Yutaka Sado, a world-renowned orchestra conductor. Sado is almost as passionate about whisky as he is about classical music. He recounts a story of how one of his best friends, who is a master blender with Suntory, created a single bottle just for the two of them to celebrate their 50th birthdays two years ago. “The base was from a 1961 single malt,” he says with a smile, “and the bottle’s still at a bar in Kobe, called Keith. There’s an inch left in it. You can go and finish it off next time you’re in town.”

Going with the Grain

Tokyo is a whisky connoisseur’s paradise with its intimate bars and rather peculiar bartenders, who take their work very seriously.

Mauve

This small and smoky bar has a relaxed, bohemian vibe. Drinks are served in mismatched glasses by the idiosyncratic host, Hiroshi Aoki.

What to drink: Aoki describes 10-year-old Laphroaig as Mauve’s ‘house drink’, declaring: “I drink it every day.” 

Bar On

A bar for the whisky purist and extreme connoisseur. Owner Koichi Tanigochi stocks about 2500 bottles of single malt whisky as well as a few armagnacs and cognacs.

What to drink: “If anyone offers me a drink, I’ll have a Highland Park 18- or 20-year-old,” says Tanigochi.

TwentyEight

On the 28th floor of luxury hotel Conrad Tokyo, TwentyEight (left) has sweeping views of Tokyo Bay. The drinks menu offers tasting sets of Japanese and Scottish whiskies.

What to drink: The head bartender’s choice of whisky is 12-year-old Yamazaki Hakushu. 

New York Bar

This bar starred in Lost in Translation.

What to drink: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time,” says Bill Murray in the movie. So you could try the 25-year-old Yamazaki for about $120 a glass. It was awarded the World’s Best Single Malt Whisky by the UK-based Whisky Magazine.  

Hibiya Bar Whisky-S

This basement bar, tended by Akito Obama (left), showcases whiskies by Suntory, but also stocks a number of Scottish and Irish whiskies and North American bourbons.

What to drink: Try your hand at creating your own whisky with a blending set for ¥1800 (about $22).

Words by Dave Tacon - Published in Voyeur January 2013
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 12,500,000
Time Zone GMT + 9 hours
Languages Japanese (national)
Currency Japanese yen (JPY)
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