Friday, April 11, 2014

A visit to the revamped SMWS home base in Tokyo: Whisky Bar ‘The Society’

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

The Park Hotel in Shiodome, Tokyo has been the home base of members of the SMWS in the Kanto area of Japan for a while now. The folks at the Park Hotel recently redesigned and renamed the official SMWS bar – it’s now simply Whisky Bar ‘The Society’ – and are about to launch a new collaborative series of exclusive art/whisky Society bottlings. We checked out the revamped bar and sat down with manager Kouji Nanmoku for a little chat.

Nanmoku-san spent time in New York (at the Bartenders School) and in France, but he’s been a fixture at the Park Hotel bar for almost 5 years now. Because he’s been at the stick there for a while, he knows the Society bottlings inside out, which is no mean feat, given the fact that each and everyone is uniquely different and identified by a code only. When we ask Nanmoku-san which of the recent bottles have been particular favorites of his clientele, he doesn’t need much time to think: “the recent Japanese releases (distillery codes 130, 131 and 132 – Chichibu, Hanyu and Karuizawa, resp.). All 9 bottles were empty in a matter of days, but fortunately we bought two of each, so there’s still some left!”
At any given time, bar ‘The Society’ will have 100+ SMWS bottles open. The staff knows each and every one of them as if they were their own children. In fact, they know them so well that they can offer suggestions for different types of presentation. As Nanmoku-san explains, “with some of the Society’s Islay malts, you really benefit from having it in a cognac glass as opposed to the standard whisky glass that bars tend to use by default. Similarly, some Speyside malts respond better to a grappa glass.”

To illustrate his point, he reaches for bottle 29.124 ‘Pregnancy Tea Mix’, a 20yo Laphroaig. Side by side, it’s instantly clear that the cognac snifter offers a more intense experience of this particular malt than a standard whisky tasting glass. After a while, he adds a tiny bit of soda. “This Laphroaig is called ‘Pregnancy Tea Mix’, which may not mean much to the average whisky drinker, but when you add a little bit of soda, you instantly feel the connection. You get more herbal tea notes, like nettle and tarragon…”
People tend to think that, with cask-strength whiskies, there’s not all that much to do for the bartender – pour it in a glass and that’s it – but at bar ‘The Society’, the staff feel that every bottle’s got a story to tell and that the bartender has an important role to play in conjuring up those stories. That is partly the reason why the bar space is a bit more narrow now, compared with what it was like in its former incarnation as ‘Bar High Society’. “We wanted to make it more intimate,” says Nanmoku-san, “to be closer to the customer, so that we can interact more comfortably. At the same time, if visitors just want to relax and enjoy a few drams in peace and quiet or in special company, the newly designed space is perfect for that, too. The best of both worlds, really…”
Art is an integral part of the Park Hotel ambience – they’ve even got ‘Art Rooms’, i.e. standard guest rooms transformed into art environments by various artists. In their ‘ART colours’ series, they focus on the work of a different artist every season. This goes far beyond a simple exhibition. Everything in the hotel is linked with the theme/work of the artist in focus, so at the hotel’s restaurants and in the lounge, there are special menu items inspired by the art. Bar ‘The Society’ also participates in this total art immersion. On the one hand, there’s always a special cocktail designed by resident cocktail guru Takayuki Suzuki. On the other hand – and this is really exciting news for SMWS members in Japan – every art season will see the release of an exclusive Society bottle with a label featuring the art displayed at the hotel at that moment. The first one will be released in a few days (April 15th): a stunning Bowmore (3.124, ‘Vintage Cameras and Turntables’, 1995, 18yo, Refill Hogshead) with art by Chiaki Horikoshi. As Nanmoku-san says, “even though we selected it in the winter of 2013, it is absolutely perfect for this time of the year… really spring-like.” The second ‘ART colours ART label’ SMWS bottle will be out in June.
Even though ‘The Society’ is labeled as a ‘Whisky Bar’ and the whisky selection is, obviously, its greatest strength, Nanmoku-san is keen to point out that they’ve got much more there than just whisky: “We’ve got a good selection of craft beers, wine, nihonshu (among others, a special hotel-exclusive ltd edition junmai daiginjo, that ties in with the Horikoshi-exhibition called ‘El Chiaki’) and of course, a wide range of cocktails.”
Before we leave, Nanmoku-san makes us a house cocktail, which was designed by Takayuki Suzuki for the opening of the hotel, 11 years ago. “It calls for calvados, amaretto, a special very thick sort of grenadine syrup and fresh lime.” When mixed, these ingredients miraculously conjure up a taste reminiscent of home-made umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur). “That’s intentional,” says Nanmoku-san. “We wanted something that would appeal to people coming to the Park Hotel from all over the world, but with a distinct Japanese aura. This is our take on that.”

Address: c/o Shiodome Media Tower, 1-7-1 Higashi-Shimbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-7227
Hours: 5pm~

The Society will be holding a special Society Malt x Craft Beer event at the newly opened BrewDog Bar Roppongi this Sunday (13 April) at 2pm. Price is 4,000 yen for members and 5,000 yen for non-members. The Art Colours Bowmore will be available for tasting there, as will the 72.33 (a 31yo Miltonduff), the 26.93 (a fabulous 28yo Clynelish) and much more.

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