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 fully indulge an endless thirst for the water of life emanating from “the sun's origin,” Nippon.
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 many bottle shops 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 we're looking for the right way to drink whisky in Japan, which depending on your budget or interests may include anything from a trip to the source, such as visiting a distillery's tasting room, to exploring all incarnations of the highball—from canned highballs and draft highballs to scientifically precise cocktails—or drinking up at whisky bars that are indeed still stocked with the good stuff, as well as cocktail bars serving up some of the most creative and artful libations found the world over. Kanpai.
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 nine years ago, with two decades of prior 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. Shoes off at this traditional bar, perhaps allowing you to more fully focus on Ueda-san's expertise.
Tokyo's Marugin is a standing-only izakaya, packed to the brims with an after-work crowd in search of tasty yakitori and, of course, plenty of refreshing highballs. Here, the highballs are offered on tap and served up in glass beer steins, including a supersized "mega" rendition. Knocking back a few rounds and loading up on skewers works equally well as the start of a night on the town or as its ending point.
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.
Tucked away on the ninth floor of an otherwise nondescript building in Tokyo's Shinjuku neighborhood, Bar BenFiddich has rapidly become one of the world's most innovative and exceptional cocktail havens. Hiroyasu Kayama founded the joint three years ago 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 up 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 and graceful form of performance art and generally 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, with everything being "special" for you and unnamed beyond titles such as "special whisky cocktail" or "special vintage cocktail."
You're here specifically for the Japanese whisky, though, so perhaps you mention an interest in a smoky Japanese single malt and get 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 something else. Plan on repeating that process as long as your bank account and sobriety allow, savoring a bar experience unlike any other. Kanpai, indeed.
Looking for rare and exclusive Japanese whiskies? Then head to this spot offering one of Tokyo's finest selections. Expect to find things 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 special 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.
Enjoy one of those canned highballs 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 distillery's beautiful stillhouse, with seven unique sets of pot stills offered up 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 all, and prepare for the whisky session of a lifetime. Just make sure somebody else is driving back to town.