At the moment of starting this piece, I have just woken up after returning home last night from my 6 day Tokyo trip. I am listening to “So Into You” by Mark Williams, a reflection of my feelings toward Japan. In an attempt to recover from my self-destructive trip, I have imposed on myself a week of no drinking. My next few Malt reviews, if published in the correct order, will all be about my Tokyo trip. Don’t be mistaken: it’s not for you; it’s for me. Think of me as having Japan trip withdrawal, or a positive kind of PTSD. In any case, it’s my hope that you use these reviews as a future guide.
I am not happy to be back home. I did not want to leave that which I consider the greatest country in the world. I did not want to return to the tendrils of regular life, the binding traps we call “responsibility” that prevent us from living to our fullest. Alas, the good things never last. Diamonds may be forever, but my bank account wouldn’t have lasted any longer. My liver is just about the primest foie gras the world will ever see, and I can feel the adrenaline dissipating. Sleeping in Japan is time wasted. I’ll just have to look forward to another trip to this incredible country.
If there’s one most useful tip I can give to anyone who doesn’t know the language but is going to Japan, it would be to know the word “osusume”. It means suggestion. It will get you through whatever restaurant you’re in, should you have no idea how to or what to order. It’s the same for bars. You may also get a grasp of what the bar is about. In short, your server or bartender will point out whatever they think is good. Don’t worry; there are no bad meals or drinks in Japan.
Not knowing Japanese is less of a worrying matter when in downtown Tokyo. By downtown Tokyo, I mean areas like Ginza, Shinjuku, Shibuya and Minato. Much of its local population knows how to speak English, to some degree. You might even bump into an expat there who is fluent in Japanese. If no one in the establishment can speak English well, they will most likely have English menus. Tokyo is, as an expat wisely told me before, Japan for beginners.
This was easily my best Tokyo trip yet. Comfortable in my own skin, not having any problem taking the roads less traveled, being there alone meant I had the ultimate freedom. I had also taken the initiative to cut out riff-raff touristy things when I went with family during past trips. In any case, on this one, I ate what I wanted. I drank when and where I wanted, and I stayed where I wanted. Should someone ask this self-proclaimed bon vivant where one should stay in Tokyo, the answer would be Ginza. No hesitation.
To the “normal” person, Ginza is an expensive shopping and eating district filled with tall buildings. They are not entirely wrong, but there is so much more. To me, and hopefully to the surprising delight of the Malt readership, Ginza is the best drinking city in the world. Each block is packed with different kinds of bars. Some places have three different bars in one building. Styles vary from a more club kind of venue to a jazz bar, to a spirits or wine bar, and to the forever-mesmerizing Japanese cocktail bar.
Aside from the bars, Ginza is just a 5-10 minute walk from the Tsukiji market. You may have heard of the Tsukiji market moving farther, but that’s just the fish auction area. The food market is still there. Fresh raw oysters? Seafood donburi? Unagi? Tamago? Fresh in season fruits? A5 Wagyu steak? Uni? You will find them all there for reasonable prices.
I should elaborate that while the layout of the city is reminiscent of Manhattan with the streets all in straight lines, the buildings are not huge. Most of the buildings only have one elevator, and they are only wide enough to fit one or two units inside. Most units only have enough space to have a 10 seat bar and a toilet. This makes going to most Japanese cocktail- or spirits-focused bars an intimate experience. The majority of these small bars are just owner-operated.
It was last year, in this glorious city, that I found an unassuming eight-seat basement bar called Bar Cacoi. It’s in Higashi Ginza, which is the side closer to Tsukiji. Higashi means “East,” for the curious. According to Bar Cacoi’s owner, Takeshi-san, Higashi Ginza is not considered real Ginza. Higashi Ginza is cheaper and has more offices, while Ginza is more posh and is where one can find, shall we say, “ladies of the night.”
I don’t know how to describe Bar Cacoi or its concept. It’s a very scatterbrained bar, but in a good way. There are empty old bottles near where the coat hangers are. The arrangement of bottles on the bar counter are a mix of different liqueurs and spirits. There’s a lot of odd bottles of spirits on his shelves. Like most Ginza cocktail bars, Takeshi-san has no menu. In Ginza, having a menu is something to be ashamed of. It means you cannot communicate well with your customer. Fret not; the owner is a very nice guy, and he speaks decent English. He tries hard to speak it well, in fact, and does his best to make sure you enjoy your stay.
The signature drink is a layered matcha-flavored gin and tonic.The top half of the drink is green while the bottom is clear. A lot of people don’t know this, but quinine is not allowed in Japan, so their tonic water uses quinine essence. But what caught my admiration for Takeshi-san was his willingness to accept my odd requests. One request was a Char Aznable-themed cocktail. He made me a red Agricole-based Daiquiri-style drink. It was delicious.
For my visit this trip, he showed me this odd bottle from Hakushu Distillery, which Adam has previously reviewed. Yes, your eyes do not betray you. It says Hakushu Rye Type! According to him, Hakushu distillery had columns still installed back in 2010. He says the mashbill is only 30% rye, but has corn and malted barley as well. It comes in a 500ml bottle and was bottled at 57%. The whisky was barreled in 2012 and was bottled in 2018. Unfortunately, it was only sold to establishments. More unfortunate news for you: I had the last drop.
Hakushu Rye Type – review
Color: Dark amber
On the nose: Gentle scents of apple pie, cinnamon syrup, hints of cardamom, vanilla, honey, some anise, some dates and a savory chestnut soaked in cherry juice finish.
In the mouth: Hot! True to its ABV. A lot of lingering cinnamon, apple pie and slight cardamom notes followed by notes of vanilla, hints of cherry, peppers and savory chestnut cake. Next come hints of almond jelly.
A less oaky and wood-dominant American style whiskey. I forgot to ask if this was aged in virgin oak or used oak. I think this is true to the Japanese preference for liking a more balanced spirit. This whisky starts off as an American whiskey but ends more like the Johnnie Walker Rye Finish. It’s a bit reminiscent of a Heaven Hill Bourbon bottled by Cadenheads.
I am curious if this is just Suntory testing the market. It would be interesting to see them release American-style Japanese whisky in the future, something like Japanese rye whisky aged in ex-American bourbon or rye casks? Maybe both? I have heard of Nikka producing rye whisky back in the ’80s. Is this their answer to that experiment?
Side note: I was surprised my senses were still working well when I tried this. It was almost midnight when I was at Bar Cacoi. I had been drinking since lunchtime. It was a good nightcap.
Glad you had a good time in Japan John. Japanese Rye, seriousy, what’s that all about? Almond jelly, really, is that some sort of freak thing they sell in Asia? This is a bourbon with a dollop of rye. Probably costs about £50 a shot. Don’t think I’ll bother. Cheers. WT
Hi WT, it’s an interesting take. I like that it’s not as in your face as most American rye.
Yes, almond jelly often served as dessert in traditional Chinese restaurants. I’ve never had any in faux Chinese restaurants in America.
Hi John, sorry if my comment seemed a bit offhand. It’s just the probable expense that jars. I’d certainly like to try this and as a fan of Japanese whisky I get frustrated with what has happened in the last few years. Also, just in case you think I have a problem with almond jelly the opposite is true. My wife is a Spaniard and we live off almonds, marzipan, turron, you name it. I’ve just never heard of almond jelly so thanks for putting me in the picture. Cheers. WT
Hi WT, I didn’t think of it as offhand. No worries. To try this, I think you’d have to wait for Suntory to release a next batch if they ever plan to. I haven’t seen this whisky in any other whisky bars I’ve been to.
The most common, at least for me, almond jelly dish is the ones that come in a cold clear sweet soup and black grass jelly.