Cocktail Bars in Tokyo

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We just got back from a trip to Japan, and some of the bars in Tokyo really stood out for their drinks and atmosphere. Instead of our usual recipe post, we thought we’d write about some memorable bars from the trip.

Our favorite bar — and the hardest one to find — was Bar BenFiddich. We learned about it from this Food Republic post, and after reading a review on Measure & Stir, we knew we had to visit. Google Maps brought us to a street corner in Shinjuku, surrounded by tall buildings. But we couldn’t find a sign for the bar, even when we tried to match up Japanese characters. Eventually we noticed that the address ended in “9F”, so we walked over to the elevator in the building that seemed closest to the dot on the map…and indeed, a business card for Bar BenFiddich was taped up next to the “9” button.

We rode up to the 9th floor in the tiny elevator, which dropped us off next to an unlabeled door. Opening it, we found a dimly lit room with cigarette smoke in the air, a few tables, and a handful of locals at the bar. Behind the bar was an array of dried spices, and bottles holding homemade liqueurs and infusions. The bartender, Hiroyasu Kayama, welcomed us warmly. One of us ordered the homemade Chartreuse that we’d read about on Measure & Stir; the other just said “bartender’s choice”.

The bartender showed us an old French book where he’d gotten his recipe for white Chartreuse. He poured some, neat, into a short-stemmed cordial glass. It was very herbal and mildly sweet.

For the “bartender’s choice”, he concocted a homemade amaro before our eyes. He started with several herbs and spices from his jars, grinding them together with a mortar and pestle. The spices included cardamom and a bitter Japanese herb that he let us taste. He then combined this with red wine, cognac, and simple syrup for a delicious, spicy fortified wine.

We enjoyed our drinks so much that we decided to order a second round (we’re lightweights, so we usually stop at one). The first drink we got this time was a kind of gin and tonic. The bartender mixed the gin with honey, lime, and wormwood, commenting that this created a full profile of sweet, sour, and bitter flavors. He made tonic water on the spot by infusing water with rosemary and mint, then carbonating it with an industrial-looking CO2 tank. This drink was served with a large ice cube and sprigs of rosemary, mint, and wormwood in the glass.

The other drink in this round featured homemade Campari made with Ciroc vodka, bits of cochineal insect for natural red coloring (yikes!), orange zest, and botanicals including cardamom and the same bitter herb as the amaro, served with grapefruit juice and soda water. Before we left, the bartender gave us a sample of his homemade absinthe, which was based on wormwood, anise, fennel, and other herbs.  We felt like we were being treated to a performance as well as yummy drinks, making Bar BenFiddich one of the highlights of our trip.

Another stand-out was Bar High Five in Ginza. This was also a cozy hole in the wall with a friendly bartender and beautifully crafted drinks. We ordered a Black Negroni, which we had read about in the Food Republic post. This cocktail was like a traditional Negroni, but with the Campari replaced by a small amount of Fernet Branca. We hadn’t liked Fernet Branca previously, but in this drink it was really good. We also had a delicious Manhattan-type drink with Japanese whisky, Maraschino liqueur, local cherry blossom liqueur, and tea bitters.

We also enjoyed the bar at the Mandarin Oriental, which offered good drinks, a beautiful view, and a cosmopolitan vibe. That’s where we took the photo at the top of this post (the other bars were too dimly lit), showing a cilantro-laced Oriental Margarita and a glass of Hibiki 21 whisky. Finally, if you’re interested in Japanese whisky, we recommend Zoetrope for their huge selection and half-pour tasting flights.

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