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Whisky culture in Tokyo is vibrant, vivacious and very special with each bar, regardless of size, steeped in history and simply oozing craft stories that many brands and bars in the west would be more than envious of.

Service too is impeccable, as you’d expect from Japanese culture, with every bar effortlessly creating experiences through seemingly small touches that all layer on each other to create something rather indescribable. From the vocal welcome each person is given upon entry to each establishment, to hot towels to freshen and enliven, to different traditional refreshments to snack on with your whiskies these bars take whisky enjoyment to another level.

Did I mention the smart, white-coated bartenders? And the occasional bartender wearing white gloves so as to not ‘harm’ any of the many bottles he is likely to touch during his shift? What about how the bartenders carve prefect spheres of ice each for each whisky you order from massive chunks of ice without missing a chip and without fault, something that no matter how many times you see, is still incredible to witness. Such great theatre, such great experiences.

Some, but not all bars are well stocked with fantastic Japanese whiskies, stuff you have and have not heard of, but they also proudly stock bottles of bourbon, Scotch, Irish and other world whiskies too nowadays to cater for most flavour requirements.

A few of the bars will charge a cover charge amounting to around £7.50, which instinctively feels like a tourist tax, but once you’ve sat down, been hosted and enjoyed wonderful whiskies, you will see it as a worthwhile investment.

Be prepared too to be turned away from bars even if there are seats available; these are private members bars and are not keen on non-regulars taking the seats of those they I know.

Below are some of the best bars in Tokyo, but it is by no means an exhaustive list as some are hidden away in office and apartment blocks and in nondescript buildings, making them both hard to find, and thoroughly rewarding to discover. I found people on the street to be incredibly helpful when it came to finding these bars. There was one guy who walked five blocks in circles asking people until it was clear it was impossible to find the place, then there was the guy who walked back from where he was going to discover the bar was on the 8th floor of his apartment block and he never knew. Be prepared to clock the steps in trying to hunt them down.

Shinagawa Highball Bar

Address: Exit Shinagawa Station using the East Exit and walk about 300 metres straight ahead of you, you cannot miss it.

This was an unexpected bar find as I had not planned to go out, but had a lot of time to kill and it was very close to my hotel. And I’m glad I did, I was hugely impressed. Simple, small, easy concept but executed perfectly. As always I sat at the bar, which is also the kitchen, and enjoyed a few different highballs with different whisky components to understand the variances in flavour. Some, if asked for ‘strong’ came with a measure of the component whisky on the side which was helpful to experience as well as when diluted in the Highball.

I would highly recommend ordering the house serve ‘Black’ Highball, served from a device like a soda gun you see in bars, but also try the others on page two of the menu as well as the seasonal serve which is a rotating guest bottle. I did not try the flavoured Highball, could not bring myself to do it as I felt it would mask the whisky flavour too much.

The food looked and smelled fantastic, although I didn’t have any as I had dinner plans, and the walls were lined with bottles of whisky that you can enjoy in the various highball serves. Note you can only try these neat if served with a highball, which is a confusing yet thoroughly appropriate serving method as this is not a ‘shot bar’ at all.

Cost: £

Experience: 3/5

Bar tending staff: 3/5

Opening hours: 5pm – 11.30pm

Go for: The atmosphere as well as the menu of different highball options to compare and contrast different whisky flavours when made into this simple, refreshing drink.

 

Bar Suzuki

Address: 東京都中央区銀座5-4-15 ソニー通り西五ビル 4F大きな地図を見る

This is a whisky drinker’s bar; bottle after bottle, barely any logged on the ‘menu’ the English are presented with limited editions from distilleries all over Japan, Scotland and even Ireland being well represented.

The bartender spoke highly of his love of the highball, advising that he likes his with peated whiskies such as Laphroaig and Ardbeg; something I’ve never considered – and it was too early in the night for anything peated – but will be trying when I’m back home, that’s for sure.

My highball used Chita grain whisky as the spirit component and I must say it was incredibly refreshing, very light, but the whisky flavour held strong in there to produce something very nice indeed.

Following this I just had to indulge in a Hibiki 21 Year Old as the price was very reasonable compared to back in England, ~£14 for a measure, and wow was it smooth. An unparalleled premium Japanese whisky experience.

At 8.30pm on a Friday night I expected a few whisky drinkers to be there already, but I was the only person there – apparently it gets a lot busier later on in the evening.

Cost: £££

Experience: 3/5

Bar tending staff: 2/5

Opening hours: 6pm – 2am

Go for: Some hidden Japanese gems and to see what a forty year old whisky bar looks like in Tokyo.

 

Hibiya Bar Whisy-S II

Address: 8F Noco Building 5-6-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku

Upon arrival I was asked incredibly politely whether I was ok that this was a Suntory bar, bemused I advised it would be more than ok and requested a seat at the bar. This place was rocking, with a buzzing, vibrant clientele.

Laughter all around through the time I spent there… it looked like small groups of coworkers were out together with each table having fun and letting loose after a long week. Being 9.30pmon a Friday night I expected it to be busy, but with only one person on the bar, the bartender so busy we barely got to chat until the last few minutes.

As with each bar I visited for this feature, I started with a highball, this one being a classic highball made with their own blended whisky mixed in with lemon zest, very refreshing but the lemon overtook the whisky component somewhat leaving it a bit anonymous.

As you’d imagine, this place houses a great selection of Japanese Whiskies, may be more on the standard side to locals but for the occasional dabbler in Japanese whisky, and non-domestic resident, it was fun to explore what we don’t get back home, even if a couple of them, Suntory Red especially, were a bit lighter than my regular taste.

When the pace of his pours calmed down, the bartender talked me through different bottles and the old recipes they’ve revived in Suntory Original Reissue Kanu, which was a great example of a typically harmonious blend but with complex spices integrated into it. Went well with the food I ordered too, smoked hamburger and Hakushu-infused sausage; literally combining two of my favourite things… whisky and sausages, these were only small side dishes and are just about enough to keep you going if you’ve already had dinner. My main meal was  a smoked shrimp meat toasted sandwich – not only was it full of flavoursome shrimp, but this has gone down as hands-down one of favourite sandwiches of all time.

A neat Hibiki 17 was just what I needed after the meal to cap a great bar experience.

Opening hours: 5pm – 11.30pm

Cost: ££

Experience: 4/5

Bar tending staff: 3/5

Go for: The food and the very reasonable whisky costs, not the Highballs as these were good, but not standout.

 

Butler Ginza Branch

Address: 8 Chome-7-7 Ginza, Chūō, Tokyo 104-0061, Japan

Great little bar. Just what I was looking for, and a great barman who wanted to talk about the bar, the whiskies, why I was in Tokyo and he was so proud of what he was doing it was lovely to see.

Asking for a recommendation, he poured me a rather large Taketsuru 17 Year Old, named after the famous Mr. Taketsuru who effectively kick started the Japanese whisky production methods we know and enjoy today following six years being spent as an apprentice at the Longmorn distillery in the early 20th century.

The highball serve here was with Dewar’s 12 Year Old, and, like the Chita serve at Bar Suzuki, the refreshment level was through the roof, but this time a lot more of the whisky character cut through which was highly enjoyable.

The bar itself is super-small, only around ten seats and limited space for bags, just like the classic Tokyo bars typically reserved just for members.

The bar owner / manager / bartender, Naoya, is a real whisky person who is doing this both as a business and for the love of it. Really great to see his excitement when talking whisky with me and other punters and he definitely knew his stuff too.

Opening hours: 5pm – 11.30pm

Cost: £££

Experience: 5/5

Bar tending staff: 5/5

Go for: An intimate whisky experience from a fellow whisky lover.

 

Tokyo Whisky Library

Address: 〒107-0062 Tokyo, Minato, Minamiaoyama, 5丁目5−24 南青山サンタキアラ教会

This place is all about whisky and infusions; their highballs, and many of their other cocktails are made with whiskies they have infused in house with various different waters and fruits to create some special flavours unseen anywhere else in Tokyo.

With a full wall of bottles, elegantly racked up in themes, this bar is a shrine to all things malt, blends and grain. You can literally get lost for ages just staring at bottles and looking at the packaging of whiskies you will probably not see in many bars, as well as a healthy bulk of the regulars you’d expect to see.

They are not the most flexible if you want to change cocktail ingredients, such as requesting your own choice of base whisky, but they will do it after a little battle… just make sure you give them your menu back as they only have a few for some reason, and don’t like you to spend too much time making your decision!

Opening hours: 6pm – 3am

Cost: £££

Experience: 3/5

Bar tending staff: 2/5

Go for: The range, the infusions and to gawk at the pretty bottles on display.

Bar Benfiddich

Address: 〒160-0023 Tokyo, Shinjuku, Nishishinjuku, 1 Chome−13−7 大和家ビル

Now I know what you’re thinking, as I was thinking the same thing but having had it explained to me by the owner, the name if is not necessarily a rip off of a certain Scotch brand close to my hear, it is the English name of the owner Hiroyasu Kayama.

Still, a bit close, eh? And one guy whilst I was in there asked where the Benfiddich distillery was, swearing blind that he had been there despite me enlightening him to the contrary and that he was thinking of Glenfiddich.

This one took an age to find as there is literally no signage suggesting it exists, I had to ask five people until one guy walked with me until we found it but when I eventually got in, I was pleasantly surprised. ‘Ben’ is not a bartender, he is not a mixologist, a showman who only likes to create the best possible drink for everyone who sits in front of him.

I panicked so had a highball to start, which was greeted with a confused ‘don’t you know what I can create?’ look, but at that point I did not so felt a little intimidated. With drink two though I got him into his flow when I gave him a brief of ‘Japanese whisky cocktail, all other ingredients are you choice’. What did he do? Stirred Yoichi with a special sake vermouth that is not available commercially and wow was it incredible. Might try whisky and vermouth when home, or whisky with sake, although it will never taste the same.

The glassware here is bonkers, no two glasses seem to be the same, something that would stress me out, causing the mild OCD to twitch ferociously. And the main man is aided by two support staff who seem to be briefed not to speak and to spend their whole evenings passing around wacky ingredients and washing random glassware as Mr Fiddich works his magic.

My final drink was spiced old fashioned, and I must say I preferred his cretinous creation, although this was good, it was a bit too floral for my liking given that it was created using many, many herbs all rolled and crushed together on a pestle and mortar. The theatre is captivating, almost as much as just eyeing up his amazing tools.

‘Ben’ told me that he has been a mixologist for around fifteen years and if he wants a day off he just closes, and if he wants a year off he closes. That will be why two cocktails and a highball cost about £30 then.

Definitely a great place to drink alone in; I bumped into two bartenders from the American Bar in The Savoy, London and got Hartung to a university lecturer who now wants my master list of Tokyo bars to visit when he’s back on holiday… I told him to look out for this article in due course.

Opening hours: 6pm – 3am

Cost: ££££

Experience: 5/5

Bar tending staff: 4/5

Go for: Mixology theatre at its absolute best, a maestro of flavour and a good spot to enjoy a cocktail amongst other people drinking alone or with a partner. A true experience.

 

Hermit Bar West

Address: 〒160-0000 Tokyo, Shinjuku, 新宿3-26-3 コンワセンタービルB1

Having not visited this bar since last in Tokyo in 2008, this was an essential visit on my itinerary. My overriding memory of this place was my feeling of it probably the one bar in the world I’ve spoken most about in the last ten years as it left such a profound mark on both me as a person and me as a whisky geek, not to mention each whisky being served with an ice ball hand-crafted in front of you.

This one is relatively easy to find although you will walk up what feels like hundreds of stairs to be presented with two barrel ends drilled into the wall, one saying ‘Scotch lovers’ with an arrow pointing left and one with ‘Bourbon lovers’ with an arrow pointing right.

Once you’ve made up your mind, hint; go left, you walk in to a bar that has no mixers, no non-whisky spirits and nothing but bottles everywhere you look, from rare distillery releases to rare independent bottlings of all manner of global whisky.

Now, sadly for me this bar had changed in the last decade; no longer are the ice balls done by hand, they were all pre-batched. They still have an amazing selection of whisky, that’s for sure, but you know what they say about meeting your hero.

The bottles are mostly limited edition Scotch Whiskies (hence ‘Scotch lovers’ on the barrel, but not many Japanese, and the selection was barely represented on the English menu presented to me, so save yourself from reading it and just look at the shelves as you’ll find some gems there, including some of the Kariuzawa Playing Card Card Series, although I did not partake in that myself.

I won’t lie to you, I was disappointed by the lack of Japanese options on the menu given that last time they made up a sizeable portion of the bar, although I understand global supply and demand dynamics have changed in the last ten years making that harder to maintain and keep populated. Shame though.

Here I had a Dewar’s 12 Year Old Highball, Hibiki Harmony over ice and a Nikka 12 Year Old which was very nice indeed.

And if you’re peckish afterwards, literally next door is one of the finest sushi bars in the world; as amazing this time as it was ten years ago, and likely using the same crockery on the conveyor as nothing here has changed, that’s for sure.

They have a sister bar called Hermit East, which is nice enough, a small bar you need to book into, but watch out; I left after one drink as the bartender tried to rip myself and another tourist off advising on super-expensive whiskies to put into their highballs. Put it this way; when a local asked for a highball, in English, they used Dewar’s 12 Year Old without asking, but when I asked I was offered Yamazaki 18 Year Old at £22 a measure, when highballs are not really the place for drams like these.

Opening hours: 5pm – 2am

Cost: £

Experience: 3/5

Bar tending staff: 2/5

Go for: A wide array of previously unseen Scotch whisky from independent bottlers, or a cheeky Kariuzawa dram.

 

Zoetrope

Address: 7-10-14 Nishi Shinjuku | 3rd floor, Gaia Building #4, Shinjuku 160-0023

Described as “the best whisky bar in Tokyo”, this bar is a safe haven from the hustle and bustle, a small bar with a menu that will leave all whisky geeks twitching with excitement . This is one that is best left for you to discover on your own as the range is bordering on ridiculous, and the bartender here is a maestro of whisky knowledge. Just make sure you’re there well in advance of closing as they stop letting people in about half an hour before closing time.

Opening hours: 6pm – 11.30pm

Cost: £££

Experience: 4/5

Bar tending staff: 4/5

Go for: The range of whiskies otherwise unobtainable.

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