As long as you’re a fan of whisky, you’ve probably come across its Japanese permutations. The seasoned Scotch drinker will understand that the craft and composition behind Japanese whisky is quite a different beast from its Western counterparts, but no less enjoyable.
Japanese whisky’s stronghold in its native country has only been around for about a century. The ever-growing industry races to meet the demands of local malt liquor lovers, as well as the increasing attention from the West. In 2015, Yamazaki’s Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was nominated the best whisky in the world by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, and if there was any authority more valid to cement the Eastern spirit’s presence globally, it is that.
Brands like Nikka, Hibiki and, of course, Yamazaki are popular options to explore, but there are also some exclusive bottlings and less-accessible expressions to venture into, should you find yourself keen on getting a full portrait of Japanese whiskies. One of the best places to do that is rather obvious: The land where it’s made.
Many travellers tend to find themselves in the capital city during their virgin trip to Japan. While many of the country’s distilleries are situated outside of the city, its well worth paying a trip to the well-stocked whisky bars in Tokyo for a tasting tour around the nation’s finest whisky producing factions.
Here are our personal recommendations on the best whisky bars in Tokyo.
Owner Atsushi Horigami has two main passions in life: American films and whisky. He has brought them together with Zoetrope, a isolated, quirky little bar off Shinjuku’s chaos with over 250 different drams available for tasting. Black and white silent films play through the night as you sample your way through the menu, and perhaps even try Zoetrope’s house-bottled whiskies.
Zoetrope, Level 3, 7-10-14 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, +81 3 3363 0162
Located in Nikka’s Tokyo headquarters, the Blender’s Bar serves up everything from the liquor conglomerate. It has its house brand, of course, but also other rarer expressions like the premium-aged Taketsuru whiskies, as well as single malts produced in Yoichi and Miyagikyo. There are tasting flights available as well, if you can’t decide.
Nikka Blender’s Bar, Nikka Whisky Bldg #B1, 5-4-31 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, +81 3 3498 3338
The beatific face of Hidetsugu Ueno has become a fixture in Japanese bar culture, and so has his bar, High Five. The bar has a residency on the World’s Best and Asia’s Best lists, and for good reason. The characteristically Ginza-style joint doesn’t have a menu. Instead, Ueno or the bartender in charge prompts you with questions about your preferences, and prepares something unique to your tastes. There’s also a whisky menu that’s 200 bottles strong, but we’d suggest you explore its cocktails alongside your drams.
High Five, Efflore Ginza 5 Building, Basement, 5-4-15 Ginza Chuo-ku, +81 3 3571 5815
Many bars in Japan have a table fee or an entrance charge, but Bar Tsurukame does not. This is one of the small bonuses that makes this humble whisky bar a must-visit. Located near the Ningyocho station, the menu houses some of Japan’s best aged whiskies, including the Hibiki 17 Year Old and Taketsuru 21 Year Old.
Bar Tsurukame, 1-12-11 Nihonbashi-Ningyocho, Chuo-ku, +81 3 6661 6446
Bar Kamo is the place for those who have explored the common Japanese whiskies, and want to broaden their scope. This Ginza bar sources its bottle selection from all parts of Japan, so you’ll definitely chance upon some rarer, lesser-known expressions that a typical bar may not stock. It’s also a great place to bring someone who’s not entirely into whiskies, as Bar Kamo has an extensive range of wines to keep them occupied.
Bar Kamo, 8-4-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3 5568 8036