Yet while one might assume Tokyo to be rife with specialist bars offering domestic drams, the whiskey enthusiast still has to look hard to find such spots. An exception is Shot Bar Zoetrope (third floor, Gaia Building No. 4, 7-10-14 Nishi Shinjuku; 81-3-3363-0162;homepage2.nifty.com/zoetrope), perhaps the only bar within Tokyo’s 23 wards dedicated to exploring the output of Japan’s distilleries.
Opened in 2006 by Atushi Honigami, a cinephile who screens silent movies on the back wall, Zoetrope offers a bewildering array of local libations, many of which are particular to this cozy space. A good place to start is with a taste of Yoichi Single Malt 1988 (3,000 yen, or about $36 at 84 yen to the dollar) — the recommended replacement for the award-winning (and sold-out) 1987 bottling.
Perhaps more exclusive (and available) is a snifter of Ichiro’s Malt Shot Bar Zoetrope 3rd Anniversary Single Malt (1,300 yen). Bottled in limited quantity (263 bottles) by the independent producer Ichiro’s Malt, it has a softer soul than the Yoichi ’88, a warmth that rolls up the tongue before disappearing into the ether.
In the basement of Nikka Whiskey’s headquarters in the fashionable Aoyama neighborhood is the unassuming Nikka Blender’s Bar (5-4-31 Minami Aoyama, Minato; 81-3-3498-3338). The bar offers only Nikka whiskeys, but visitors are encouraged to try their hand at creating a blend based on a combination of five single malts and one grain whiskey. This blending set (3,000 yen) includes six small glasses on a wooden tray, each with paired descriptions like “sherry and sweet,” “peaty and salty” and “woody and mellow.” Should one find his personal creation lacking finesse, the bar also offers house blends based on the six options at hand.
Located in Ginza, Hibiya Bar Whiskey-S (Kaneko Building, 3-3-9 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3-5159 8008) serves whiskeys selected exclusively from Suntory’s distilleries. Hibiya also affords an opportunity to invent one’s own blend, but here the process feels like more of a science experiment, complete with small test tubes and titration devices (1,800 yen). Limited bottlings are also available month to month — for example Hakushu Single Malt, aged in sherry casks (1,096 yen per glass).
Below a branch of Mos Burger, a Japanese fast-food chain, and through a heavy door,Quercus Bar (Okuma Building, 1-32-5, Higashi-Ikebukuro; 81-3-3986-8025) specializes more in Scottish whiskeys than in Japanese ones. Tiny, wood-lined and dotted with cookie-cutter Gaelic pub accessories, Quercus offers a limited selection of local bottles, including the occasional single-cask bottling from Ichiro’s Malt. And, with the best of intentions, Scottish food is available, which in a city saturated with superlative sushi joints might just be an out-of-the-ordinary experience worth having.