The Basics Drinking Out

The Right Way to Drink Whisky in Japan

Immerse yourself in the local drinking culture at these five whisky bars.

Yamazaki tasting room at Yamazaki Distillery. The varied expressions are housed on shelves behind thin gold barriers
Yamazaki tasting room at Yamazaki Distillery. Image:

Yamazaki Distillery

Japanese whisky finds itself in a somewhat precarious position, its exponential growth leaving it handicapped by supply shortages. That’s why it remains more myth than go-to drink of choice for many American whiskey drinkers, and it’s also why a trip to Japan is the best way to indulge an endless thirst for the water of life.

It’s therefore funny that one savvy secret to drinking well in Japan is to search instead for whiskey from foreign shores. Japanese whisky is in short supply even in its homeland, leaving many bars with jacked-up prices for the best expressions, if they even still have any. And you’ll discover that many bottle shops are out of coveted releases, instead offering tantalizing deals on bourbon or scotch instead.

Nevertheless, that’s not why you’re making this trip, and there are still endless ways to get in on the Japanese whisky fun. But you’re looking for the right way to drink whisky in Japan. Depending on your budget and interests, that may include a trip to the source by visiting a distillery’s tasting room. Or exploring all incarnations of the highball, from canned and draft versions to scientifically precise cocktails. Or drinking at whisky bars that are indeed still stocked with the good stuff, as well as cocktail bars serving some of the most creative and artful libations found the world over. These are five great bars to get you started.

  • Bar Benfiddich

    Bar Benfiddich in Tokyo. A lone bartender stands in the center of the frame, behind a abr. he is in a white blazer and is stirring a cocktail.

    Bar Benfiddich

    Tucked away on the ninth floor of an otherwise nondescript building in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, Bar Benfiddich has become one of the world’s most innovative and exceptional cocktail havens. Hiroyasu Kayama founded the joint in 2013 and is in complete command of a captivating, creative and immersive cocktail experience.

    He makes his own absinthe, as well as his own Campari, grinding spices on his bar top and still using beetles to provide the red coloring. He might cold-distill a floral coffee water elixir over candlelight for one drink or break out an enormous five-liter bottle of vermouth from the 1950s for another. He prepares drinks as if practicing a showy yet precise, graceful form of performance art and seems to operate on a higher plane than the rest of us.

    There’s no menu, but he’ll tell you that whisky, absinthe and gin drinks are among his specialties. Request a flavor, type of drink or specific ingredient, and he’ll go from there, everything left unnamed beyond titles such as “special whisky cocktail” or “special vintage cocktail.”

    You’re here for the Japanese whisky, though, so perhaps you mention an interest in a smoky Japanese single malt and receive a riff on a Whiskey Sour made with Hakushu and fresh sage, a pairing he turns to frequently. Prepared with an immersion blender, which produces a perfect frothy texture, the drink is good enough that it will likely be finished in less time than he took to carefully craft it. So order another round. Plan on repeating that process as long as your bank account allows, savoring a bar experience unlike any other.

  • The Door

    The Door in Kyoto. A line of glasses filled with ice and water are chilling and two bartenders in dark vests are set to go to work.

    The Door

    Kyoto’s The Door, also known as One Shot Bar The Door, is a perfect place to appreciate hand-carved, crystal-clear ice spheres with your whisky of choice. Kazumitsu Ueda opened the bar in 2008, when he already had two decades of bar experience under his belt.

    He’s a master of the Japanese craft of carving ice. In his left hand, he holds a chunk of ice atop a small dish towel, and in his right, he wields a brutally sharp chef’s blade. In less than two minutes of steady rapid-fire chipping and cutting, a near perfect spheroid emerges, ready to cool down your dram.

    Choose from a vast selection of whisky, watch the ice show, and enjoy a properly chilled whisky while focusing on Ueda-san’s expertise. Remember: shoes off at this traditional bar.

  • Hibiya Bar Whisky-S

    Hibiya Bar Whisky-S. Two tulip glasses are filled with a dram of whisky. Behind them are four bottles of Japanese whisky

    Hibiya Bar Whisky-S

    Looking for rare and exclusive Japanese whiskies? Then head to this spot offering one of Tokyo’s finest selections. Expect to find bottles you’ve never even heard of, including quite literally a collection of “special mysterious whisky” from Suntory, as well as assorted limited editions, vintage offerings, distillery exclusives, private casks and unusual decanters.

    While old age statements are available in abundance, there are also hard-to-find whiskies of a younger age, such as Yamazaki 10-year-old or Chita 12-year-old. You won’t be able to make a dent in this list in a single evening, so choose wisely.

  • Marugin

    Marugin bar in Tokyo. Packed with guests and brightly lit

    Marugin

    Tokyo’s Marugin is a standing-only izakaya, packed to the brim with after-work crowds in search of tasty yakitori and, of course, plenty of refreshing highballs. Here, the highballs are offered on tap and served in glass beer steins, including a supersized “mega” rendition. Knocking back a few rounds and loading up on skewers is a great idea, whether you’re starting your night or ending it.

    Marugin is notable because it’s said to be the first bar in Japan to offer highballs on demand with a specially built draft system. While a standard highball with Kakubin is available, it’s also available everywhere. Kakubin is an affordable blend from Suntory and the top-selling whisky in Japan, so walk into any bar in the country and ask for a Kaku-hai, and you’ll find one. So instead, try the house Marugin highball, made with yuzu, ginger and honey, adding extra layers of sweetness and spice to the otherwise straightforward drink.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • Yamazaki Distillery Tasting Room

    Yamazaki Distillery tasting room. Bottles are right next to each other, packing the shelves of the room

    Yamazaki Distillery

    Enjoy a couple canned highballs and a snack while riding on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, soaking up views of Mount Fuji in the distance if it’s a clear morning. Then grab a ride that’s another 30 to 45 minutes outside of town to Yamazaki Distillery. The beautiful stillhouse, with seven unique sets of pot stills offered in a mind-boggling spectrum of shapes and sizes, is a key part of the attraction.

    But the best part of the tour? A visit to the tasting room, perhaps the world’s single best place to drink phenomenal, rare Japanese whisky at absurd bargain prices. Not only does the tasting room have prestigious offerings such as Hibiki 30-year-old, Yamazaki 25-year-old and Hakushu 25-year-old on hand, but trying them only sets you back the equivalent of about $25 per pour. Hibiki 21-year-old for $5? Sure, I’ll have another. A full array of cask-strength Hibiki 17-year-old components? Bring ’em on, and prepare for the whisky session of a lifetime. Just make sure somebody else is driving back to town.