After countless pours across dozens of Japan’s finest bars, one whiskey stands out in my memory above all: Seagram’s 7.
No, not some secret special recipe Japanese export-only Seagram’s. The 80-proof Diageo blended (with 75% neutral grain spirits) American whiskey with the big red 7 watermark on the bottle that was in no way designed to mislead you about the age of the contents. The very same bottle that you assuredly found a case of in the back of your parents’ liquor cabinet when they finally sold the family home and retired to sit around the house in a warmer climate. And, in the clearest possible measure of quality, those 3/4-filled bottles with 1970’s tax strips sat open – yet unconsumed – for 20+ years.
I can say with confidence that Seagram’s has been on the shelf of every liquor store that I’ve ever been in. It has likely been behind every bar I’ve ever visited. It was in the liquor cabinet of every one of my parents’ friends’ houses growing up… and, until a few years ago, I’d never considered tasting it.
I don’t know what the natives, the guidebooks, or the experts say you’re supposed to do while visiting Japan on business, but here’s what I do: when my work is done for the evening, I research a nearby bar with an interesting whiskey selection. Then, I stroll over there with headphones full of old school Japanese jazz. Usually, Scenery by Ryo Fukui. Maybe that’s cliche. Maybe it’s totally random. I wouldn’t know. I don’t know anything about jazz other than that I like it and I fell in love with this algorithmically recommended album on one of these strolls.
Inside, I order an ounce of something that catches my eye. If I don’t like the bar, I order another. If I like the bar, I order a few more. If the bartender is engaging or the selection is terrific or if the scene is right, I take off my coat and stay awhile.
I taste through a few independent bottlings of this or that. I eat the bar nuts. They refill them. I eat them again. And again and again, until I remember that in this country they will never stop this dance until I stop eating them.
On the walk home, I grumble angrily about America and the avalanche of incomprehensible decisions we made after 1776 that made it impossible for us to have nice things like quaint little four-seat hole in the wall bars with eye-watering selections of whiskey old and new sold at bewilderingly low costs by humble sole proprietors.
On one specific night in Tokyo, I am able to harangue my colleague into joining me for a pour after our meeting. We try and fail to visit the famous Mash Tun bar and settle for a brightly lit street-level bar down the road named Gosse. We have three little pours. From there I lose my colleague and take a half hour walk to Bar Urushi (two pours) and eventually another half hour walk through dark and rain soaked (and disarmingly friendly) streets to Bar Caol Ila.
Bar Caol Ila is at the top of a third floor walk-up with a decoy bar on the first floor that is in no way located there to mislead you about which bar you were looking for. The door opens to a seven or eight seat L-shaped bar framing four overflowing shelves stocked predominantly with independent scotch bottlings.
As is common in Japan, those bottlings spill out to cover the first six inches of bartop as well. Two bartenders jostle around behind said bar to serve the three customers already seated. A single man and a couple. I am immediately guided by a pointed hand to a seat on the short end of the L tucked into the short corner just inside the entrance. The nearest of the two bartenders speaks little to no English. He’s courteous, if curt, but we managed well enough with distillery names and some pointing, some head shaking, and eventually head nodding.
I sit quietly and drink while the rest of the Japanese-speaking staff and guests chat amongst themselves. It’s a solitary existence, but one that is familiar after so many Tokyo nights in exactly this posture. Sometime later, a few words in English interrupt my solace. The single guest and I begin a conversation. He’s a spirits purchaser/procurer for a Japanese distributor and I happened to have chosen one of his bottlings. I compliment him on it.
Somehow, we get to talking baseball and the further bartender joins the conversation. Turns out he can speak a bit of English, too, and we chat about Ohtani and Darvish and Ichiro and laugh about some of the ex-MLB boppers currently playing in the NPB.
At one point, the further bartender turns to me with a knowing smile and invites me to come sit near him and the single guest in the middle of the bar. I take my coat off and leave the gaijin seat to join the group. My drink is empty, and I ask for a recommendation. It’s a delightful pour; the first of many such recommendations.
The single guest speaks just enough English to translate a complex joke or comment for the two bartenders. Occasionally, we find a gap in his understanding and all sit around stumped, unable to convey something through the language barrier. Turns out my initial bartender is generally bashful about his lack of English. I can sense it in his body language, and I feel a pang of shame. After a while, the guest says “it is [the English-speaking bartender’s] birthday. let’s have a highball to celebrate.” The shy bartender asks the other what whisky to use. The English-speaking bartender surveys the expansive wall of choices behind the bar, smiles a big smile, and announces. “Seagram’s 7.”
We take turns ribbing him for this choice, and begging him to make a different one. He refuses and raises his glass: “Today, I am 49 years old. And to celebrate we drink… Seagram’s 7 highball. Because I like the taste.” I asked him what he would drink next year. He paused for dramatic effect. “Next year, when I am 50 years old. It will be very special, so I will drink… Seagram’s 7 highball.” We laughed and laughed in a way that is only possible when you’re trying like hell to communicate between two foreign languages and somebody lands a joke. We drink some more. We laugh some more. I say thank you a dozen times. I leave. I walk to my hotel.
That night in Tokyo, across three bars, I sampled an Old Malt Cask Port Ellen 28 Year, a Glenfarclas Family Casks 1989, a Whisky Sponge Campbeltown 21 Year, a Blackadder Mars Shinshu bottling, That Boutique-Y Whisky Company’s Japanese Blended Whiskey #1 21 Year, a Maltman Ben Nevis 22 Year, a Blackadder Limited Editions Laphroaig 1990, a Cadenhead’s Laphroaig 1991 13 Year, an old Bowmore De Luxe, and a Mackillop’s Coleburn 1979. But, I only know that from the pictures. None of those pours stand out in my memory like the image of the Bar Caol Ila bartender hoisting a Seagram’s 7 highball in the air with a shit-eating grin on his face.
Seagram’s 7 Highball – Review
Color: Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme in Light Brown.
On the nose: Grocery store baked bread, dried apricots, television static, and walking past a heavily perfumed old woman at home depot.
In the mouth: Unsweetened tea, raisins, cheap maple syrup, cherrywood flavored lollipop, and the melted ice at the bottom of an old fashioned served from a bartender at a Friday wedding.
That birthday highball revealed more to me about whisky and my interest in it than any pour before it. It’s cliche – of course it is – but allow me to say it anyway in the hopes that just one more person will take the intellectual leap: of the hundreds of whiskies I’ve tasted, the ones I remember most fondly are those I drank in good company.
To this day, I cannot see or hear the words Seagram’s without breaking into a shit-eating grin. And now I have one on my bar. I like to imagine that Seagram’s 7 made its way onto the bar of an entire generation of American drinkers in much the same manner.