Japan: Day 5 – Tokyo Drifter

Lots of time to kill today before a 5 PM flight back to California. Time to hit the street. Speaking of hitting the street, where else in the world can you plop down for the night on the sidewalk and just go to sleep, both legally and safely? Only in Tokyo. This guy is wearing a $300 suit; it's not like he's a vagrant. He just had a rough Friday night and needed to take a rest. There's not one piece of trash on the ground in the entirety of Japan, so add "cleanly" to my original query.

Shinanoya is one of the oldest and most-respected whisky retailers in Tokyo, so stopping by the storefront was an absolute must.

A huge, expansive, and eclectic selection of whisky awaits you inside. I cleaned up in here. There were some serious gems on that shelf.

Somehow, some way, Chris and I just stumbled upon this gigantic fish market. We had heard that visiting a fish market was something we should do in Tokyo, but we didn't know where it was and didn't want to waste time searching one out. Yet, despite our laziness, we still ended up at the fish market just by meandering right into it. To get an idea of how big Tokyo is, let me give you some perspective: just this fish market is the size of Union Square (including the mall). I'm not kidding. You have a selection of seafood that is as big as all of our department stores put together.

Whatever you want from the ocean, it's here waiting for you inside this box.

Then I spotted these empty wine bottles in a department store window display: 1997 Lanessan and 1997 Potensac. There's no way these two bottles didn't come from K&L. We bought practically the entirety of both vintages from these two Bordeaux chateaux, so the odds that these two bottles were purchased in tandem anywhere else is pretty much zero. What are the odds? A Japanese businessman probably visited the Redwood City store, bought these from Jeff Garneau, flew back across the Pacific, drank them, and used them in his window display.

Big Tokyo, small world.

-David Driscoll


Japan: Day 4 – Blending In

Tokyo is gigantic sea of people moving through a highly-intricate web of streets, alleys, and pathways. It's the only city where I've ever truly felt lost, overwhelmed, out-of-place, and intensly-excited all at the same time. After dropping our bags at the hotel, we had a few hours to go out on our own. While our lodging is in Ginza, we had a bus drop us off in the Shinjuku district. It's there you'll experience the Tokyo of your dreams and expectations. I struck out on my own for most of the late afternoon and just let the flow of traffic take me where it may.

Life in Tokyo is about finding balance; it has to be for anyone to avoid going completely insane. You've got more than thirteen million people living on top of one another, all up in each other's business twenty-four hours a day. What fascinates me about Tokyo (and much of Japan in general) is the ingenuity in small spaces. The Japanese have found a way to create peace and harmony in the most compact of areas through creative design. This hidden side street near Shin-Obuko Station had patio tables, trees, and an atmosphere of tranquility in the most unlikely of locations.

Not far from Shibuya Station is Nikka's headquarters and the incredible Blender's Bar: a clandestine watering hole loaded with old and rare Nikka whisky expressions, as well as sixteen different blends created by Nikka's blending team exclusively for this location. We couldn't wait to get inside.

What to drink first? The Taketsuru 17 year unchillfiltered at 48%? The Pure Malt 35 year? The 30 year old "Rita" apple brandy? Or one of the sixteen exclusive blends? I felt like my head was going to explode under the pressure.

When in doubt, just ask Tadashi Sakuma—Nikka's head blender—who was sitting directly across from me for most of the evening. We had drinks and small bites with the entire Nikka blending team, while sipping dozens of different whiskies at the Nikka Blender's Bar. 

"I'll try #16; the Tropical Sunset Blend," I told the server.

"Oh, you chose my blend," said Tadashi humbly. It's an incredible thing, ordering literally any whisky off the menu, and knowing that the person who formulated that flavor is somewhere in the room with you. We were able to ask the most specific of questions and instantly get a direct and detailed answer. It was one of the more satisfying industry dinners I've ever sat through. The blenders were all very relaxed, polite, and interested in learning more about the American market; never once tiring of our incessant questioning. Later in the evening, I sat next to one of the newer blenders who, after two months on the job, told me how even one drop of the wrong whisky in a blend can destroy the harmony of the marriage. I left not only with an increased awareness of the entire Nikka portfolio, but also with utter respect for the care put into each expression. These guys have spent decades experimenting, researching, and grinding away in the hope of whisky perfection. There's a level of respect and commitment to whisky making in Japan that I've never witnessed anywhere else.

Even though we had eaten dinner with the blending team, there was no way I was going to bed without a bowl of ramen; especially with the renowned Ippudo literally across the street from our hotel.

I'm normally a miso guy, but Ippudo is famous for their tonkotsu pork broth. Harmony, balance, peace, and simple design: it's all right there in that bowl. 

-David Driscoll


Japan: Day 4 – The Road Back to Tokyo

We boarded the bullet train at Sendai station this morning, eagerly anticipating the upcoming views through the window. Getting the chance to see a city from afar is much different than the view from the middle. Sendai was one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami in 2012, and there are placards at the airport showing where the water level reached during the flood. Since then, however, it appears the city has persevered. We were all very impressed with Sendai; both with the aesthetics and the friendliness of the citizens. I would definitely go back again on vacation if I had time.

Tokyo, from the little I've seen so far, is one of the most awe-inspiring cities I've ever visited. There are busy streets full of storefronts, and alleyways full of more storefronts intersecting those streets. It's like the compactness of New York, with the sprawl of Los Angeles, but bigger, fuller, and even more-populated. And you can't read anything, or recognize exactly what anything is. I think I could spend an entire year here and barely scratch the surface.

As if the busy streets full of shopping weren't enough, you've got train stations and subway stops bursting with more options. It seems all the best spots are located underground as part of the transit system. Hasegawa Liquors, one of Tokyo's most-revered whisky stores, is tucked away beneath the bustling city streets; part of a series of small, garage-style bodegas.

And don't forget the malls! Tokyo goes a lot further up than down. I'm still working on the subterranean selection. I can't even imagine what awaits over my head.

-David Driscoll


Japan: Day 3 – Miyagikyo

We touched down in Sendai, hopped on our Anchor bus, and immediately began driving into the mountains towards the Miyagikyo distillery. After about twenty minutes, the hills began transitioning from urban dwellings and pine trees, into clear fall colors and country simplicity. Miyagikyo is located in an entirely different terrain than the Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido, which is something Taketsuru originally wanted (a contrast to his existing facility), yet it still follows the same guidelines for quality whisky production in Japan: a cold Scottish-style climate with incredibly pure water close by.

While seeking out those very important criteria in the late-1960s, Taketsuru came across this mountain stream in the Miyagikyo Prefecture; a water so clean and crisp that he was able to drink it right from the river bank. He famously kneeled down, put his hand in the water, and brought the cold, refreshing liquid to his lips. He asked an assistant what the name of the river was: Nikkawa. The name of his company was already engrained into the current; it was a sign that his next distillery should be built in that very spot.

Using red bricks to create a striking contrast against the green forestation of the mountains, Taketsuru established Miyagikyo distillery in 1969 and immediately began creating a completely different style of whisky to increase the versatility of his blended expressions. 

Whereas the Yoichi stills were wide-necked with descending lyne arms, the pots at Miyagikyo were to be more narrow with ascending lyne arms that allow only the lighter, less-heavy alcohols to escape before condensing the vapor back into a liquid. Powered by steam rather than coal fire, the result is a graceful, more feminine style of single malt whisky. The perfect contrast to Yoichi's masculine, full-bodied weight.

Taketsuru had purchased a Coffey column still from Scotland in 1963, and upon establishing the Miyagikyo distillery he had it moved from a northern Nikka site to his new mountain location. Today there are two Coffey stills operating side-by-side, feeding a continuous cold stream of wort into the yellow, S-shaped pipes, which carry the liquid through the rising vapors; both condensing the alcohol as it rises, and heating the wort with the temperature of the steam. In 2013, Nikka launched a pure Coffey still grain whisky and it has quickly become one of my all-time favorite expressions. Using a mashbill of mostly corn, the whisky is dangerously drinkable and the maturation in ex-Bourbon barrels casts a soft, mellow flavor onto the spirit. It's basically Japanese Bourbon, but don't tell Scotch drinkers that.

In order to obtain access to the parts of the distillery unavailable to most visitors, we had to suit up head-to-toe in a Nikka work suit: shoes, pants, belt, windbreaker, and helmet. 

And out we marched, one-by-one, across the Miyagikyo campus and towards the first stop on our tour.

Our guide led us to the end of the compound, unlocked a gate, and escorted us down to the bank of the Nikkawa River where, of course, we were allowed to recreate Taketsuru's initial taste of the pure mountain water.

Next, a peek at the towering Coffey stills that stretch up several stories, through grated metal platforms, as high as the eye can see.

While the Coffey stills are tall, the Miyagikyo pot stills are nothing to sneeze at either. They're huge! Naoki said they were once the biggest in Japan and may still be. He wasn't sure if Suntory or another rival company had since installed larger ones.

Like Yoichi, there is a cooperage on site, albeit a much more modern and expansive one. 

We had an amazing visit at the Miyagikyo distillery, complete with our own blending exercise where we were given the raw components of each whisky to use in our own creations. At the end of a long day, however, we couldn't wait to get to our hotel. Hotel bars in Japan are incredible and are often the standard in the industry. The Sendai Metropolitan bar was no exception. First class service; top quality drinks.

We sat at the counter for more than an hour, talking about our day and what we had experienced. It was a lot to take in. We've done so much, so quickly, with little time for reflection. Getting the chance to simply sit and unwind was a treat.

Soon it was time to head back out, though: deep into the bright lights of the Sendai evening. We grabbed some Japanese tapas, chugged a few cold Asahis, and eventually ended up at a nearby Karaoke room where we screamed our voices hoarse until late into the night. In 2004, I lived with a group of Japanese girls while studying in Germany and learned a bunch of trendy Japanese rock songs by sheer repetition. I don't know what any of the words mean, but I still remember what they are. Of course, those very songs were available for Karaoke, and, of course, I wanted to shock the shit out of everyone by singing one of them. 

Naoki about fell over. "How in the hell do you know the words to that song?!" he screamed. It was a great time, to say the least.

We're off to Tokyo today by bullet train. That should be quite an experience.

-David Driscoll


Japan: Day 3 – Ponderings

Circling back around to my original post before leaving, it’s not just consumers who are constantly on the hunt for shiny, new, limited editions. Even retailers like myself and the boys from Anchor have been asking our friends in Taiwan and Japan about single cask options, or the possibility of a new exclusive expression for our businesses. Dennis Carr, the VP of sales for Anchor, told his staff at dinner in Taipei, however: “Hey guys, sell what you have first.” Some of us can’t help but ask though. We’re all feeding the fires of our own inherent enthusiasm. Knowing there’s yet another whisky out there to experience is partly what drives our passion, which I think is healthy once you've already tried what's available. Some folks, however, are asking me about the potential for new Nikka whiskies in the U.S. before they’ve even tried the Pure Malts, the Miyagikyo 12, or the Yoichi 15. Just this morning, I’ve already received fifty emails about Jim Murray’s new “Whisky of the Year”, the Yamazaki Sherry Cask, from customers hoping to score a bottle (NOTE: it’s not available in the U.S. and it’s not going to be anytime soon). How many of those people have tried just the basic Suntory expressions? Why aren’t we ever interested in what we already have?

While it may seem beneficial to get that kind of press, I have to imagine that getting the prestigious “Best Whisky in the World” title is more of a curse than a blessing; if you’re really into whisky, that is. If I had a whisky company I would pay magazines and critics not to review my products, mainly because I know first-hand what it’s like to deal with that group of cherry pickers. It’s like having your new pop song hit number one on the charts, then going on tour to perform for people who only came to listen to that one hit. “Just play ‘Freebird!’ Get to ‘Freebird’, man, and make it sound like it does on the album!”  You might have an entire record’s worth of great music, but wherever you go people are going to remember you for that one thing. It’s like when Andy Kaufman tried to do stand-up comedy and everyone in the audience just wanted him to say, “Thank you very much,” like his character on SNL. Whisky is moving into that same sphere of pop culture phenomena. A larger population of people is being exposed to greater whisky information and, more than ever, that populous is interested in hype. That’s not a criticism; it’s just reality. I’m no different than these guys in the way I live certain aspects of my life. I want to be relevant, as well. I want to know what’s going on generally in a number of different pop culture genres, and I read magazines, websites, and various articles to learn about what’s happening. If I were to read about some hot new ramen shop on the Peninsula, I’d probably line-up with the rest of the general public, while the hardcore ramen geeks rolled their eyes at me in disdain.

We went out for cocktails in Sapporo last night after dinner and Naoki explained to us the rigorous training that it takes to be a serious bartender in Japan. Speaking of ramen, I don’t know how many of you have seem the film “The Ramen Girl” with the late Brittany Murphy (it’s nothing great, but it’s available to stream on Netflix), but what Naoki described is similar to what her character experiences while trying to work for a ramen shop in Tokyo. The owner must break her down completely and teach her humility and respect before allowing her to do the one thing she actually wants to do: make ramen. Naoki was once a bartender in Tokyo and, while we sipped Sidecars in a smoky Sapporo lounge, he talked about starting out. Most of what he did in the beginning involved washing dishes, polishing the jiggers and shakers, cleaning the bar until it was spotless, and sweeping up after hours. He was forced to do that for months before he was even allowed to touch any of the bottles. When he finally was asked to mix a drink for the owner of the bar, his boss wouldn’t even take a sip until the fifth time Naoki eventually made him one. Instead he would ask: “Exactly how many ice cubes did you use?” or “Can you tell me the production methods of the apple brandy in this drink?” 

“I’m sorry, I don’t know,” Naoki would answer.

“Well, then I cannot taste your cockail,” the owner would say, before getting up and walking away.

There’s a level of complete respect for the bartending profession in Japan, completely unrelated to the “bar star” atmosphere we’ve created in the United States. In America, you’ve got a new generation of young people with huge chips on their shoulders hoping to become the next Jim Meehan or Thad Vogler; not because they love mixing drinks, but because it’s currently cool to be a “mixologist.” In 2008, when I first started learning about pre-Prohibition cocktails in San Francisco, you would go out and meet people like Erik Ellestad—understated guys with humility who were bartenders because they genuinely enjoyed the craft. Most had nothing but respect for both their cocktails and their clients. They would spend as much time filling your water and getting you napkins—the complete bartender experience—as they would making your next drink. Today, however, I see very little of that same modesty. Now it’s all about getting a book deal, or a brand ambassador job, or a keynote speaking role at Tales of the Cocktail. Now that it’s cool to be a bartender (or the idea of being a bartender), the profession is being flooded with young people who don’t want to start at the bottom; they’re ready for their fifteen minutes right now. Talk to tech companies in Silicon Valley and they’ll tell you the same thing about their new hires. Retailers, too. I’ve interviewed a number of young candidates for a job at K&L who showed little interest in working the sales floor or helping customers. They wanted to go right to the buying, traveling, and fancy industry dinners. “I don’t have to lift boxes, do I?” one famously asked. “I didn’t go to Berkeley to fetch will call orders all day,” is another amazing quip I once heard.

While I walked back to the hotel last night after round one, some of the guys stayed out late and hit up another whisky bar down the street. This morning they were wide-eyed and excited, telling stories of the owner: a fifty-five year old woman who loved whisky and loved being a bartender because it allowed her to share that passion with others. She started in the business thirty years ago and continues to operate the entire bar by herself today (can you imagine what it must have been like for a woman in Sapporo to start a whisky bar in the 1980s?). Her decades-long experience had made her a consumate professional. She spent more than an hour talking to the Anchor boys, grabbing whisky after whisky from her 300 bottle collection. Naoki told us he purposely avoids mentioning this place to others because he doesn’t want it spoiled by success. Even though it’s previously been a finalist for “Best Bar in Sapporo”, he never casts a vote in her direction because he knows an award like that would mean the end of an era. 

Awards and accolades often mean the death of authenticity. Once a person or product achieves a cult-like status, everything about them changes because the nature of their existence changes. Once you transition from genuinely-interested customers into trend-following, fly-by-night consumers, it’s impossible to maintain the same attention to detail. Here in Japan, however, where—unlike Taipei—the airports have practically zero brand name stores, and are instead brimming with unique, localized, purely-Japanese products (to the point that I don't even know what anything is), the atmosphere seems untainted by foreign interests. There’s a level of excitement about drinking here that isn’t formulaic or contrived; it’s based completely on passion and respect. You have to be passionate to be a bartender in Japan, otherwise why go through that grueling process? It's not about what bartending can lead to, but rather about a desire to do one's job well and professionally. That level of commitment and aptitude is rewarding for the people who genuinely care, and it sure helps to weed out the fickle ones.

-David Driscoll