By Nicholas Coldicott
Tokyo’s most fanatical bars
Here’s a bold claim: Tokyo is the world’s greatest city for drinkers. Now here’s the evidence: whatever your pleasure, you’ll find bars in Tokyo stocking hundreds of varieties of the drink. And they’ll be staffed by obsessive, authoritative and highly passionate booze experts. Here are 11 of the best.
Whisky: Campbelltoun Loch Bar
There are so many contenders for best whisky bar in this malt crazy country, but Campbelltoun Loch bar was an easy choice. This tiny subterranean bolt-hole is crammed with about 250 malts, most of them rare. Though it only seats nine, the punters must be drinking fast because new stock comes in at a cracking pace. Owner Nobuyuki Nakamura is just the kind of whisky obsessive you’d expect to find here, but the customers are often just as fanatical and often employed in the whisky world.
Address: 1-6-8 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku
Nearest station: Yurakucho or Hibiya (exit A4)
T: +81 3-3501-5305
It wasn’t so long ago that most Japanese whisky went into blends, and no one at home or abroad gave it much serious thought. It’s different now, of course, with Suntory and Nikka both cramming their trophy cabinets with single malt silverware. The best place to explore Japanese whisky is Zoetrope, the 6-year-old bar in Shinjuku that claims to stock around 300 bottles of the stuff, as well as Japanese rums, brandies and beers. Owner Atsushi Horigami is also a movie fanatic, so you’ll usually find vintage movies or soundtracks playing.
Address: 7-10-14 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku
Nearest station: Shinjuku on the Oedo subway line (exit D5)
T: +81 3-3363-0162
Tokyo has half a dozen rum specialist bars, each boasting hundreds of styles of distilled sugarcane, but none compare to Tafia. Owner Chie Tato is professorial in her knowledge of the drink and can guide you through her 400-bottle strong world tour of rum, including a couple of Japanese versions. Though Tato named her bar after a slang word for the cheap gutrot version of rum, the drinks on offer are superlative. Tato is also a cigar aficionado and stocks an impressive selection.#
Address: 2-15-14 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku
Nearest station: Nogizaka Station (Chiyoda line)
T: +81 3-3407-2219
There are few men more serious about beer than Tatsu Aoki, proprietor of Popeye in the downtown Ryogoku district. Not only does he serve a staggering 70 draft beers, most of them Japanese microbrews, but he obsesses about glass shape and beer temperature. Each day, before opening the bar, the team discuss climate and other factors to consider when recommending a beer to a customer. Popeye has everything you could dream of in a specialist bar, which is why it’s still packed every night, 25 years after it first opened.
Address: 2-18-7 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku
Nearest station: Ryogoku Station (Sobu, Oedo lines)
T: +81 3-3633-2120
Vodka: Bloody Doll
This Ginza bar stocks 400 varieties of vodka, and if you’re wondering why anyone would bother amassing so many styles of a drink that tastes of nothing, one evening here will set you straight. Bartender Hiroshi Tsuchiya can offer you a Vietnamese vodka that smells potently of popcorn, a Mongolian vodka that reeks of sour cheese, or a Japanese vodka that’s reminiscent of paint stripper. He also has a wide range of home-infused vodkas in flavours as unorthodox as wasabi, hibiscus and thyme.
Address: 2F, 7-4-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Nearest station: Ginza (exit B9) or Shimbashi (Ginza exit)
T: +81 3-3289-8155
The only Japanese bar to have made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, Sherry Club was listed in 2007 as the bar with the world’s largest range of sherries. You’ll find more than 100 varieties on the menu, with a detailed tasting map that helps a novice navigate the fortified wines. The food menu is as authentic as the drink list, with a range of paellas, raw hams and Spanish salads. And as you might expect from a bar this fanatical, the staff have all interned in Spanish bodegas and are trained venenciadors.
Address: 6-3-17 GinzaChuo-ku. Tel: 03-3572-2527. Open Mon-Sat 5pm-4am, closed Sun. Nearest stn: Ginza (exit C2).
Tokyo’s Roppongi district must serve gallons of tequila each night, but most of it comes in shot glasses and is hurled straight into the bloodstream. Right in the middle of all the debauchery is one bar that’s spent the last decade teaching people to sip rather than slam. Agave look like an authentic Mexican cantina and stocks a staggering 400 styles of tequila and mezcal. According to manager Faramarz Khadem, "everybody thinks it’s just for drinking games, so we try to change the image. That’s why we don’t use shot glasses, we use miniature brandy snifters – to show people that you shouldn’t shoot.”
B1F, 7-15-10 Roppongi, Minato-ku
Nearest station: Roppongi (exit 2)
T: +81 3-3497-0229
To explore Japan’s oldest domestic distillate, head to this demure dining bar atop Shinagawa station. The menu lists an astonishing 350 varieties of shochu, with an emphasis on the nation’s favourite sweet potato style, but plenty of support from barley, brown sugar, rice, chestnut and obscure styles such as perilla or pumpkin. If you like a strong drink, try the hatsudare ("first drop" shochu), the foreshots from the distilling process that are served at a potent 40+ percent alcohol. Only the first 3 percent of shochu production can be classified as hatsudare, so these drinks can command up to twice the price of the regular stuff.
Address: Atré Shinagawa 4F, 2-18-1 Kaigan, Minato-ku
Nearest station: Shinagawa (Konan exit)
T: + 81 3-6717-0925
Aged sake: Shusaron
Like whisky, wine and rum, sake can age magnificently. Unlike whisky, wine and rum, hardly anyone appreciates the vintage versions of the rice brew. Japanese consumers seem to prefer their sake fresh and delicate, which leaves the bolder koshu, or aged sake, an underappreciated beast… except at Shusaron, a bar dedicated to the extraordinary breadth of flavours that can come from rice and yeast. The menu offers sakes up to 30 years old, and if you find one you like, you can buy a bottle to take home.
Address: 2F Wing Takanawa, 4-10-18 Takanawa, Minato-ku
Nearest station: Shinagawa
T: + 81 3-5449-4455