I was lucky enough to spend four glorious weeks exploring Japan – my dream travel destination – a while back. It’s a place that’s long fascinated Europeans, dating back to the nineteenth century and the ‘Japonisme’ craze that had Monet building his own Japanese garden (yes, the lily one), and heavily influenced Van Gogh who directly copied his favourite woodblock prints. (Big Vincent coined it ‘Japonaiserie’*).

Japan is now a place where the traditional lives side by side with the ultra modern, futuristic, often neon, and sometimes bonkers (especially in Tokyo). It provides utterly dizzying contrasts for the tourist, and a whole lot of magic. The food and drink is also excellent so a lot of our trip was naturally built around that.

From immaculate courses of Buddhist shojin ryori in ‘washitsu’ (traditional tatami floored rooms), to hunting down sometimes ludicrously (or downright worryingly) hard to find bars within urban apartment tower flats and basements. From travelling hundreds of miles within Japan itself to take in the two oldest Japanese whisky distilleries, to tucking into kurogoma black sesame ice creams and every conceivable flavour of Kit-Kat. But I know you’re here for the drinks, so here are three experiences I’d heartily recommend to anyone travelling to Japan as a lover of whisky, bars and cocktails (and some drinks recommendations if you’re not).

This is a personal list, but there are classic Japanese drinks I could have concentrated on more. For those I’ll happily refer you to my erstwhile colleague Richard Legg’s beginners guides to sake, shōchū, and awamori. He’s an Awamori Jinbner (a sort of international ambassador for this lesser known Japanese spirit), and just possibly a bigger Japanophile than I am. Don’t overlook umeshu either.

Jake Mountain in Omoide Yokocho

A trip down Omoide Yokocho, literally ‘Memory Lane’ (although it is also known as Piss Alley…)

Drink in a tiny bar

Fancy and – let’s face it – expensive cocktail bars can be incredible, and I recommend them below. But no nonsense, affordable drinking holes are the setting of many a great evening. We checked out varied izakaya (which delightfully translates as ‘stay-drink-place’) bars and the aforementioned random apartment block bars too (best only done with a reliable recommendation or very good and up to date guide book!), but one of the best experiences was exploring Golden Gai in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Think hundreds of teeny-tiny, largely wooden, shanty-style bars squeezed into six narrow alleys that, unlike the surrounding city, haven’t been redeveloped since the war. Once the red light district, the unique bar culture that now dominates this compact district developed from the late 1950s onwards. Each bar is about 10 square metres of super informal, zero protension, potentially enthusiastically themed drinking for about half a dozen people at a time. Some are members or locals only, but plenty are more than happy to welcome us ‘gaijin’ (a sometimes pejorative term for foreigners). Try out a few, chat to some strangers, take in the vibe.

Nikka Date over ice, Jake Mountain strolling through Golden Gai, and a whisky highball in a tall glass with a handle

(Left to right) Whisky and snacks in Sendai, exploring Tokyo’s Golden Gai, and a ubiquitous Kirin Highball

What to drink

Depending on the bar you may want to grab a cool beer with an affordable whisky on the side, a whisky Highball (sometimes on tap), or a sake. Some bars specialise in sake, for example, overpoured ‘mokkiri’ style. Simple cocktails and mixed drinks may also be available. Shōchū and oolong tea is well worth a try (as is whisky and green tea).

Nikka Whisky From The Barrel

Yes, I know, some of this may be distilled at Ben Nevis, but it’s a beloved classic for good reason. Big, bang for buck, adaptable goodness. (And as somebody in the industry said to us recently, if they do reformulate it to all be distilled in Japan, “they’d better not fuck it up!”)

Fuji Gotemba Single Grain

An unusual and again adaptable single grain whisky from a distillery owned by brewing giants Kirin made with malted barley, corn and rye. It combines spirit from a Canadian-style kettle distiller, a bourbon-style doubler, and a Scotch-style column still.

Akashi-Tai Junmai Daiginjo Genshu

Junmai means that this sake hasn’t been fortified with additional neutral alcohol, while Dai-ginjo denotes the highest level of polishing/milling of the rice. Enjoy slightly chilled like a white wine.

Visit a Japanese whisky distillery

I visited the two oldest Japanese whisky distilleries, Suntory’s Yamazaki and Nikka’s Yoichi. As a big old whisky nerd, I was always going to travel to see both (I very nearly took in Hakushu and Miyagikyo too), but if I want to cover different parts of the country here then I should probably focus on the latter.

Yoichi is found way up north on the island of Hokkaido. This part of Japan’s known for many things including Sapporo city, skiing, national parks, the indigenous Ainu people, and being where my partner Melissa proposed to me on top of an active volcano. Crucially, the climate is cooler and less humid. Dairy farming and other familiar agriculture is prevalent (if you’re a Legend of Zelda fan, think Lon Lon Ranch and milk). In fact, a lot of it seems quite… ‘British’? Masataka Taketsuru certainly thought so, and picked a spot on the coast surrounded by mountains as the perfect Scotland-like place to found Nikka’s first distillery.

As is typical of Japanese distilleries, there are stills of various shapes (many house styles come from each distillery). At Yoichi however, these stills are direct-fired using coal, which is a sight to behold as skilled workers shovel it in like steam engine locomotive boilermen from a totally different age. Shinto ‘shide’ paper streamers on ropes also adorn the neck of each still, reverence usually reserved for holy spaces and shrines.

Of particular interest here (and at Yamazaki) is that the tour includes a tasting, and there’s also a whisky tasting bar. This is a fantastic chance to try whiskies that are hard to find even in Japan (let alone abroad!) and the prices can also be quite reasonable…

Old and rare bottles of Nikka and Suntory whiskies including single cask Yoichi and Yamazaki 25 Year Old

You honestly don’t want to know how little tasting the above and more cost

Try these

Of course Japanese whisky is quite expensive these days outside of Japan, with aged malts very hard to come by. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions that are still very much worth your time.

Yoichi Single Malt

The distillery’s flagship NAS release aims to show off the body, refined peat smoke with hints of salinity, and complex fruitiness the distillery is capable of producing.

Hakushu 12 Year Old

Suntory’s second single malt distillery is situated within forests at the base of the Japanese Southern Alps and manages to embody the ‘green’ notes of its surroundings.

Japanese Blended Whisky 21 Year Old (Master of Malt)

After some well-aged Japanese whisky without breaking the bank? We’ve got you covered.

Check out a fancy cocktail bar

When you think about cocktail bars and bartenders in Japan, perhaps you picture somebody like Takayuki Suzuki carving a perfect ice ball in a blur of movement at a Suntory event or the Park Hotel in Tokyo, where the Society Bar (an official SMWS partner) is now managed by Koji Nammoku. Or, staying in Tokyo – which is full of whisky and cocktail bars including ones that regularly bother The World’s 50 Best Bars awards – in the equally home-from-home sounding Bar Benfiddich you’ll find Hiroyasu Kayama at work (or if there’s no space try Sunface just upstairs).

Perhaps you’ve also seen the more extravagant stylings of Yuzo Komai of Bar Centifolia wielding a small Japanese sword and setting fire to his bar on YouTube or Tik-Tok? All quite different, but all with a very Japanese sense of ceremony, preparation, and exacting movement in presentation. Parallels with the solemn ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony are perhaps too easily drawn, but technique, harmony and meaning run throughout both. Many places don’t even have a menu – they just work out what you need from your preferences, mood, the season (Japan has 72 micro seasons) and their skill.

It’s the Bee’s Knees

My pick? Let’s go beyond Tokyo shall we? Travel west on the main island of Honshu and you reach the Kansai region and the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Kyoto is a stunning city, home to Buddhist temples (we were lucky enough to stay in one), the countless vermilion torii gates of the Fushimi Inari shrine (Inari being the Shinto spirit of foxes, tea and sake among other things), The Kyoto Distillery, and a speakeasy called Bee’s Knees.

Several photos of Bee's Knees patrons having a great time with bartender Toru Ariyoshi

Just another fun week at Bee’s Knees (including a night we were there!)

Bee’s Knees has now been named in Asia’s 50 Best Bars four years running, finishing as high as 18th in 2021 after being the highest new entry the year before. The 50 Best team note that the 1990s hip-hop tunes playing in the background are “somewhat incongruous” to the otherwise Prohibition-era theme. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a problem to me!

Now in its seventh year, and with international recognition, I’m afraid my favourite Japanese cocktail bar is no longer a hidden gem. While I was able to approach the mandatory speakeasy ‘secret’ door – in this case a bright yellow one set just back from the street that reads “The Book Store” – and head straight on in, you’ll now likely be wanting to get there before opening time to queue.** Get a seat and you’re in good hands though, with bartenders Toru Ariyoshi and Keisuke Yamamoto whipping up 1920s classics adjusted with appropriately Japanese ingredients such as sparkling sake, sakura liqueur, hinoki cypress and their own bitters. It’s also a lot of fun! Great drinks in a convivial environment, and Toru (who also happens to be a flair bartender who’s competed all over the world) is a legend with an infectious smile.

What to drink

At Bee’s Knees you’ll find twists on classics you may be able take some inspiration from. Think things like Negronis made with hōjicha green tea and coffee bitters (something I’m willing to suspend my usual #dontfuckwithnegronis for), the ‘Not Godfather’ made with smoked rye whiskey and amaro, Basil Gin Smashes that introduce either shiso leaf and passion fruit or mirin syrup, or of course the Bee’s Knees cocktail itself adapted with yuzu tea.

The easiest thing for those playing along at home, however, may just be to use the local gin from Kyoto distillery in your favourite gin serves.

KI NO BI Gin

It’s made with a rice spirit base and the botanicals include yellow yuzu, akamatsu Japanese red pine wood chips, bamboo, gyokuro tea, and green sanshō berries! A veritable tour of Kyoto Prefecture in a bottle. At the time of writing it even comes with an awesome free ‘Classic KI NO BI Cocktails’ book by Dave Broom. Not all of these recipes are easy to replicate at home either, but here’s one from a Kyoto bartender that ticks some classic Japanese flavours:

A green sour-style matcha cocktail with foam

Kyoto Gardens by Christophe Rossi, L’Escamoteur

Ingredients

30ml KI NO BI Gin
30ml fresh lemon juice
15ml simple syrup
20ml sake based yuzu liqueur (such as Akashi-Tai Ginjo Yuzushu)
1 tea scoop of matcha (a little less than half a teaspoon)
1 egg white (or use aquafarba or Ms. Better’s Miraculous Foamer)

Method:

Hard shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a coupe glass. (You can also try a ‘dry shake’ without ice first, then shake again after adding ice, to ensure a silky, frothy foam on top.) Garnish with a small pinch of matcha powder.

All that’s left is the inevitable sign off…

Kanpai!

* We’ve had (cheap) prints of his Flowering Plum Tree and Almond Blossom in our living room for years.
** Even then (depending on the time of year) you may have to sign yourself on to their waiting list app and wait for a message!