Tokyo, where highballs are thrown back like water, and where exquisitely presented bartenders pour forth on the virtues of single-malt whisky. Dram lovers, it doesn’t get better than these bars…
Bar Butler (Ginza branch)
Whisky bars are the golden needles in the ever-changing haystack that is Tokyo, often hidden away on the 23rd floor of some indiscriminate high-rise building, so you have to be diligent on your search. And when you find a good one (that isn’t members’ only), make a note of it. Butler Ginza is one such “shot bar” as they call them in Tokyo. Small and dimly lit – two non-negotiables of Tokyo whisky bars – Butler Ginza is thankfully at street level and only sits around 10 people (five if they’ve got shopping bags), so don’t come with secrets to tell. Instead, drink in the whisky passion of owner/bartender Naoya, as well as a number of refreshing highballs (last we looked, the house highball was made with Dewar’s 12 Year Old but Naoya will gladly indulge your curiosity for rare Japanese and Scotch whiskies).
Tokyo Whisky Library is exactly that, an emporium of mesmerising whiskies making up an entire wall of this great little bar. In said wall, you’ll find more bottles you don’t recognise than you do, such is the scope of its collection, which amounts to over 1,200 bottles. But where Tokyo Whisky Library really differs from the others is in its extensive collection of curiously delightful house infusions – whiskies that have been beautifully adulterated with interesting herb or fruit blends, bringing an entirely new plethora of flavours to the highballs. Purists, try before you scoff – you’ll be very pleasantly surprised.
If you only go to one whisky bar in Tokyo, make it Bar Benfiddich. It’s virtually impossible to find, but when you are in the right place, you’ll have to squeeze into a dinky old lift or troop up nine flights of a pretty uninspiring building in Shinjuku, but boy is it worth the schlep. A regular on the “world’s 50 best bars” list, Bar Benfiddich is a remarkable cocktail and whisky bar founded in 2013 by the charismatic mad genius Hiroyasu Kayama. By day, Kayama – get this – is a farmer, tending his plum trees, hop bines and watermelons on a small plot in the city of Chichibu. At night, he puts on his bartender-cum-botanist cape to provide one of the best bar experiences you’ll ever have. The guy makes his own absinthe and Campari for God’s sake. And if he hasn’t cultivated a spirit himself, he’ll pull out some impossibly rare bottle from the 1950s. But it’s in the drink preparation where the magic happens. It’s pure bar theatre, and the resulting drinks bring the drama. There’s no menu to speak of – you just need to mention a preferred poison or ingredient, then let the show unfold. The Japanese whisky collection is exceptional, so we’d start there. Mention you like whisky sours and prepare to have your mind blown. Unlike pretty much every other bar in Tokyo, this is not the place to ask for a highball.
Unlike Bar Benfiddich, its Shinjuku neighbour, Bar Hermit West is comparatively easy to find, although you will have to scale a number of flights of stairs before you reach its doors. There, you’re presented with two options in the form of barrel ends drilled into the wall – “Scotch lovers” turn left, “Bourbon Lovers” turn right. Scotch it is. Inside, you’ll find a quite ridiculous array of bottles, from the usual suspects to rare distillery releases and independent labels you’ve never heard of. Japanese whisky is surprisingly underrepresented so if you’re a die-hard Scotch fan, you’ll feel right at home. If you can still stand after a session, next door is a fantastic sushi restaurant.
2F Gold Building, 1-15-6 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0023; @hermit_west
A visit to the legendary Zoetrope is as close to a one-to-one Japanese whisky lesson as it gets. Yes, the sheer range of whiskies is insane, but it’s the encyclopaedic knowledge of proprietor-in-chief Mr Atsushi Horigami that will blow your mind. Horigami is one of the OGs of the Japanese whisky scene and, as such, has accumulated north of 300 Japanese whiskies, some incredibly rare such as an 18-Year-Old Kirin Fuji Sanroku Single Malt. His unique tastings are legendary if you want to sample a number of different drams, as is his passion for esoteric vintage films (the bar was designed by a legendary film art director in Japan), which are often simply projected onto the wall.
Star Bar is one of the more upmarket whisky bars in well-to-do Ginza. Owner Hisashi Kishi is a legend of the Tokyo drinking scene and has his bartenders dressed immaculately in monochromatic tailoring. Like many of the bars on this list, Star Bar does not trouble itself with prescriptive menus – instead, the bartenders offer a bespoke drink based on your preferences. As incredible as its whisky selection is, it’s also famous for its “ninja ice” – so-called because the cuboid structure disappears from view in the glass. The vintage decor combined with exceptional service and the stunning whisky offering makes this a no-brainer visit when in Ginza.
Founded in 1960, Bar Nemo in Asakusa district is an oldy but a goody, with a great choice of whiskies and equally great plates of spiny lobster and blowfish, and venison. They keep the temperature down to preserve the whiskies, but blankets are provided.
1-11-11 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0032
Shinagawa Highball Bar
Where the bar is also the kitchen, Shinagawa Highball Bar has highballs literally on tap, fired from a soda gun! But plenty of other unique highballs to neck, too.
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