Friday, February 8, 2008

To the Whiskopolis!

I am in the course of moving to Tokyo, a.k.a. the Whiskopolis. Or maybe I should call it the Whiskytopia? There is certainly no better place in the world to explore whisky.

Tokyo will be quite a change from the quiet little backwater I have been based in until now. I have just come back from a couple of days in my new metropolitan eyrie and found the big city's energy almost intimidating. Although I have made a few trips into Tokyo in the past and reported my whisky bar experiences on Nonjatta, the truth is I am really a bit of a country bumpkin when it comes to the full extent of the capital's extraordinary whisky drinking culture. I have therefore been carefully reading the advice of the doyen of whisky drinking foreigners in Japan, Taylor Smisson [1,2], who recently posted a superb primer on Tokyo bars on the Facebook Malt Maniacs page.

Taylor has given me permission to cross post his guide on Nonjatta. I have edited it slightly, just for length and to fit the changed context, but I have broken the habit of a blogtime and left in lots of stuff not directly relevant to Japanese whisky because it is such a valuable document. Those of you who are heading out to Whisky Magazine Live! in Tokyo should think about taking Taylor's tips with you because they are far more authorititative than anything you'll find in the guidebooks. Over to Taylor:
"Tokyo is probably the best place in the world to drink Scotch single malts (not to mention Japanese single malts) as well as many other alcoholic beverages. Unfortunately, most visitors from overseas are not aware of this and come and go without taking full advantage. Below are my recommendations for three Japanese whisky bars, eight Scotch single malt bars, three Scotch single malt retail stores and, for good measure, seven world-class bars with various other specialties, all in or near Tokyo.

The Whiskopolis

Take a look at this Google map for a feel of where they are located and which are nearby each other. They are color-coded as follows: Red = Japanese whisky bars; Green = Scotch single malt bars; Light Blue = Scotch single malt retailers; Yellow = other specialty bars.

Of course, good whisky is usually not cheap, so, if cost is an issue, check the prices with the bartenders before you order and be aware that many bars have cover charges (although some bars add a gratuity or service charge to the bill, most do not and there is no tipping in Japan). When you order, ask if you can order half shots. Many whisky bars in Japan allow this, especially for premium whiskies, enabling you to double the number of whiskies you can afford to try. Of the bars that allow half shots, some charge half price while some charge a little more than half price. For reference, the size of a full shot at most bars in Tokyo is 30 ml.

If you do not know Japanese, you should still be able to order what you want (if they do not understand your pronunciation of a certain whisky, try writing it down for them) but the level of the English of bartenders varies so, although some will be able to engage you in a discussion about whisky in English, most will not. For help in finding the bars, taking along someone who knows both English and Japanese is helpful. If you are not lucky enough to have access to such a person, you can show the concierge of your hotel the addresses below and ask them to tell you how to get there. If you go by taxi (which is the easiest way), I suggest printing out the maps in Japanese to show the taxi drivers.


(A) Zoetrope (in Nishi Shinjuku)
One of the few bars specializing in Japanese whisky which has no affiliation with a particular whisky company, Zoetrope has around 240 Japanese whiskies open (mainly malts but also some blends) covering pretty much all the Japanese distilleries for which bottlings are available. This may give it the broadest selection of Japanese whisky of any bar in the world. If you want to try many different Japanese whiskies and only have time to go to one bar, this is the bar to go to. They also have some curiosities such as Japanese rum and Japanese eau de vie. The interior is dominated by the old silent movies shown continuously on one wall and various movie memorabilia scattered around the room. The music is randomly selected from movie soundtracks. It all makes for a unique experience.
Website; Map; [other bars within 1km: none]; Tel.: 03-3363-0162; Address: Gaia Building #4 (3rd floor), 7-10-14 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 19:00-04:00; Closed: Sundays and national holidays

(B) Nikka Blender’s Bar (in Minami Aoyama on Kotto Dori)
Run by Nikka, the Blender’s Bar has a large selection of Nikka whiskies, especially single malts from the Yoichi (Hokkaido) and Miyagikyo (Sendai) distilleries, including many that are not widely available.
Website; Map ; [other bars within 1km: I,T]; Tel.: 03-3498-3338; Address: Nikka Whisky Honsha Building (basement), 5-4-31 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 17:00-23:30; Closed: Sundays and national holidays

(C) Hibiya Bar Whisky-S (in Ginza)
A member of the Hibiya Bar chain but with a special tie-up with Suntory, Whisky-S has a large selection of Suntory whiskies, especially single malts from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. Many are not widely available.
Website; Map; [other bars within 1km: D,K,M,N,Q]; Tel.: 03-5159-8008; Address: Kaneko Building (basement), 3-3-9 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 17:00-23:00 (open every day)

Tokyo probably has the world's largest selection of Scotch single malt whiskies to choose from, with over 50 bars with selections of over 100 malts each and several with over 500 (not to mention at least 3 whisky retail stores with selections of over 200 malts each). Although I could easily list 15-20 bars I would recommend, I think the selection below represent a good cross-section of bars. The Scotch single malt bars below are shown very roughly in order of how expensive they are, from the most pricey to the least (and a very large difference in price between the top and bottom). Although they specialize in Scotch single malts, most of these bars also have some Japanese single malts)

(D) Blue Label
(in Ginza at the corner of Hana Tsubaki Dori and Nishi Gobangai)
Recently opened in Ginza, this is a branch of the famous bar of the same name in Shizuoka City. Like the original, the Ginza branch has a huge selection (around 1,000 bottles!) including many legendary bottlings that you rarely have a chance to drink anymore. Just walking around the room looking at the bottles in the various cabinets is a treat in and of itself. Of course, legendary bottlings come at a legendary prices. All the bottles have the price of one shot on a label on the back of the bottle so you can ask to see a bottle you are interested in and discretely check the price yourself or you can ask your bartender the price out right (they do not mind). If you are on a budget, though, you might want to skip this one.
Website: (none)
Map; [other bars within 1km: C,K,N,Q]; Tel.: 03-5537-5431; Address: Assorti Ginza Hana Tsubaki Dori Building (4th floor), 7-6-10 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 18:30-03:00; Closed: Sundays and national holidays

(E) The Crane (on the west side of Ikebukuro Station)
They have a huge selection (around 800 bottles) including many very old bottlings and legendary bottlings that you rarely have a chance to drink any more. Again, this place is pricey so if you are on a budget you might prefer to look elsewhere. If you do go, check out the large number of Romano Levi bottles on the high shelf around the room.
Website; Map; [otherbars within 1km: none]; Tel.: 03-5951-0090; Address: Akebono Building (1st floor), 2-3-3 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo: Hours: 17:30-05:00 (until 04:00 on Sundays and national holidays – open every day)

(F) Grace (near Akasaka Mitsuke)
Grace was the runner-up for the Whisky Magazine Japanese Icons of Whisky 2007 Bar/Restaurant of the Year. They have a large selection (around 1,000 bottles!) Grace has been around for over 30 years and has its own unique style: nautical coffee shop interior and a plethora of knick knacks (many with a nautical theme). It serves malts in shot glasses and for the snack that comes with your drink they usually serve Japanese-style boiled vegetables of some kind (e.g. soybeans, corn and/or boiled peanuts). Just walking around the room looking at the old bottles in the various cabinets is a thrill. In some of the cabinets you can see bottles with handwritten tags on them. These are “keep bottles”, an old tradition for Japanese bars: customers buy full bottles from the bar which the bar keeps for them and serves to the customer each time they come.
Website; Map; [other bars within 1km: P]; Tel.: 03-3402-2486; Address: Tokyo Moto Akasaka Building (basement), 1-1-16 Moto Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 18:00-02:00 (until 24:00 on Saturdays); Closed: Sundays and national holidays

(G) Cask (one minute walk from Roppongi Crossing on Roppongi Dori)
Cask was the winner of the Whisky Magazine Japanese Icons of Whisky 2007 Bar/Restaurant of the Year. Besides a selection of around 500-600 bottles behind the bar, the side rooms have incredible collections of old bottles in their cabinets. They often feature recent super premium releases such as the recent Black Bowmore or the 50 year-old Yamazaki (of course, steep prices but you can ask about getting a half shot or maybe even smaller). If it is not crowded, try to get a quick tour of the separate private rooms, including the “hidden” tasting room.
Website; Map; [w/i 1km: P,U]; Tel.: 03-3402-7373; Address: Main Stage Roppongi Building (basement), 3-9-11 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo (Caution: there are 2 bars named Cask in Roppongi which have no affiliation with each other so make sure you get to the one at this address); Hours: 18:00-24:00 (open every day)

(H) Bagus (five minute walk from JR Ichikawa Station in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture)
Although it is not in Tokyo but in Chiba Prefecture, Ichikawa Station is only about 20-30 minutes from Tokyo Station by train (JR). Bagus has a selection of about 600 single malts with a nice balance of newer and older bottlings, including some rare ones at relatively reasonable prices.
Map; [w/i 1km: none]; Tel.: 0473-26-9532; Address: Cosmo Ichikawa (2nd floor), 1-7-16 Ichikawa, Ichikawa City, Chiba Prefecture; Hours: 18:30-02:00 (until 24:00 on Sundays and national holidays); Closed: Mondays

(I) Helmsdale (in Minami Aoyama on Nisseki Dori)
Helmsdale is a Tokyo institution. With its 500 singles malts, a mix of older and newer bottlings, it has its share of single malt fans but with its relaxed pub atmosphere, pub menu, real ale on tap and all night hours, it has a clientele that goes beyond malt afficionados and includes young people, business people, Japanese and non-Japanese. There are even a few celebrity visitors. After malt tastings or “serious drinking” at other bars, malt drinkers often come here to relax and eat. The Helmsdale is open to 6 am. Try the Yona Yona Real Ale (made in Japan) on tap, the Whisky Pasta (pasta with salmon and cream sauce with haggis on top and a dash of whisky) and, if you go in the right season, the Jura Burger (a hamburger made from venison meat). Music tends to be pop and rock, often Virgin Radio off the internet. You can check what malts they have opened recently in the “New Arrival!!” section of their website.
Website; Map in Japanese; Map in English; [other bars within 1km: B,T]; Tel.: 03-3486-4220; Address: Minami Aoyama Mori Building (2nd floor), 7-13-12 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 18:00-06:00 (open every day)

(J) The Mash Tun (two minute walk from the east exit of the JR Meguro Station)
The Mash Tun has a selection of around 250 malts, most of them new or relatively recent bottlings. To see what is available, with taste ratings by the bartender/owner and price indications, look at the “New Arrival & Recommendation” section of their website. I find the bartender/owner’s recommendations tend to have a high “hit ratio”. I can often find more malts I like here than at other bars with larger selections. To increase your hit ratio, give the bartender some examples of specific malts you like and do not like so he can choose something appropriate from his stock. Nice interior with mainly Celtic music.
Website; Map; [w/i 1km: none]; Tel.: 03-3449-3649; Address: Mikasa Building (Room 202 on 2nd floor of the B Block), 2-14-3 Kami Osaki, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 19:00-03:00 (until 02:00 on weekends and holidays); Closed: irregularly, often on Tuesdays (posted on website)

(K) Campbelltoun Loch (in Yurakucho, near Ginza, across the street from the elevated railroad tracks)
A hole in the wall with just a counter and only about 8 seats. There is so little space behind the seats that you have to push forward to let people by. A great mix of new and old bottlings with about 250 in total to choose from. High turnover results in a constantly changing lineup of bottlings, so I try to go once a week so as not to miss anything. Bottles that are rare and/or very good can be sold out in a week. Since it is often crowded, you may want to go early or call before you go.
Map; [other bars within 1km: C,D,N,Q]; Tel.: 03-3501-5305; Address: Matsui Building (basement), 1-6-8 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 18:00-04:30 (17:00-24:00 on Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays – open every day)

Each probably has at least 200 Scotch single malts as well as some Japanese single malts.

(L) Mejiro Tanakaya (one minute walk from the JR Mejiro Station)
Besides a great selection of single malts, they also have an excellent range of beers.
Map; [bars within 1km: none]; Tel.: 03-3953-8888; Address: 3-4-14 Mejiro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 11:00-20:00; Closed: Sundays

(M) Liquors Hasegawa Honten (in the underground shopping center on the Yaesu side of Tokyo Station)
Website; Directions: From the Yaesu Chuoguchi exit of Tokyo Station, walk downstairs into the Yaesu Chikagai (“Yaechika”) underground shopping mall, walk down the “Main Avenue” corridor to the “Rose Road” corridor and go down that past Starbuck’s and it will be on the right near the end of “Rose Road”; [bars within 1km: C]; Tel.: 03-3271-8747; Address: Rose Road, Yaesu Chikagai, 2-1 Yaesu, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 10:00-20:00 (10:30-19:00 on Sundays and national holidays – open every day)

(N) Shinanoya Ginza Store (in Ginza)
The Ginza branch of a chain of liquor/wine shops.
Website; Map; [bars within 1km: C,D,K,Q]; Tel.:03-3571-3315; Address: 8-6-22 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 11:00-24:00 (until 22:00 on Saturdays; until around 19:00 on Sundays and national holidays – open every day)

Below are some other world-class connoisseur bars in or near Tokyo. If you are interested in trying sake here is a link to an article with some sake bar/restaurant recommendations by sake writer John Gauntner:

[Beer – Japanese Microbrews]
(O) Popeye (3-minute walk from the west exit of JR Ryogoku Station)
The web address says it all, “”. It is said to have the largest selection of Japanese microbrews in the world in addition to a selection of beers and ales from outside Japan.
Website; Map in Japanese; Map in English; [other bars within 1km: none]; Tel.: 03-3633-2120; Address: 2-18-7 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 17:00-23:00; Closed: Sundays

[Beer – Belgian]
(P) Bois Cereste (in Akasaka)
Bois Cereste has around 100 Beligian beers including many which are hard to find. Most are served in a glass made specifically for that beer. The bartender/owner is Japanese but worked in Belgium as a jazz pianist and is very knowledgeable about Belgian beers. They also have food.
Website: (none)
Map; [w/i 1km: F,G]; Tel.: 03-3588-6292; Address: Kiyokawa Building (1st floor), 2-13-21 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 18:00-24:00 (until 23:00 on Saturdays); Closed: Sundays and national holidays

(Q) Sherry Club (in Ginza)
The Sherry Club is a Spanish restaurant and bar that made it to the Guinness Book for having the largest number of sherries of any place in the world – over 200. Go with a friend or two and try one of each of the major sherry types.
Website; Map; [bars within 1km: C,D,K,N]; Tel.: 03-3572-2527; Address: Yugen Building (2nd floor), 6-3-17 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 17:30-24:00 (16:00-23:00 on Sundays and national holidays); Closed: Mondays

[American Whiskey (i.e. Bourbon, etc.)]
(R) Milwaukee’s Club (five minute walk from JR Kawaguchi Station in Kawaguchi in Saitama Prefecture)
Although it is not in Tokyo but in Saitama Prefecture, Kawaguchi Station is only about 20 minutes from Ikebukuro Station by train (JR). Milwaukee’s Club has about 500 bottles of bourbon and other American whiskey. The bartender is very knowledgeable.
Website; Map; [other bars within 1km: none]; Tel.: 048-253-8875; Address: Shirayuri Building (3rd floor), 3-13-4, Sakae-cho, Kawaguchi-shi, Saitama Prefecture; Hours: 17:00-24:00 (until 02:00 on Fridays and Saturdays – open every day)

[American Whiskey (i.e. Bourbon, etc.)]
(S) Sal’s (3-minute walk from Tokyu Saginuma Station in Kawasaki in Kanagawa Prefecture)
Although it is not in Tokyo but in Kawasaki in Kanagawa Prefecture, Saginuma Station is only about 20 minutes from Shibuya Station by train (Tokyu). Sal’s has about 300 bottles of bourbon and other American whiskeys including many rare bottlings and many new releases (some bought on the bartender/owner’s regular trips to the US).
Website; Map; [other bars within 1km: none]; Tel.: 044-870-5454; Address: 3-3-12-102 Saginuma, Miyamae-ku, Kawasaki-shi, Kanagawa Prefecture; Hours: 19:00-01:00; Closed: Sundays

(T) Tafia (in Nishi Azabu (near Roppongi))
Tafia has over 300 different rums and also serves Caribbean food.
Map;[other bars within 1km: B,I,U]; Tel.: 03-3407-2219; Address: West Point Building (1st floor), 2-15-14 Nishi Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 19:00-04:30; Closed: Sundays and national holidays

(U) Agave (1-minute walk from Roppongi Crossing on Roppongi Dori)
Agave has about 400 different tequilas and mezcales.
Website; Map; [other bars within 1km: G,T]; Tel.: 03-3497-0229; Address: Clover Building (basement); 7-15-10 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; Hours: 18:30-02:00 (until 04:00 on Fridays and Saturdays); Closed: Sundays and also Mondays which are national holidays
Phenomenal! Thank you Taylor Smisson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I tried yesterday to go to Bar Grace in Akasaka because of this blog, but I and two other Japanese-speaking foreigners were immediately denied entry at the door with the bartender rudely crossing his arms, saying 'Members Only' and refusing to talk with us further. We were whiskey connoisseurs with money and one person was a visiting distiller from the U.S., but that wasn't enough to talk our way in (even though there were only two other visible customers in this sixty-four seat bar/restaurant). Bar Grace is not an option for foreigners unless you happen to know somebody that can bring you inside. Bar Grace seems to thrive on their sense of exclusivity and caters only to Japanese executives with large expense accounts.