Photocredit: TimeOut Magazine
It's approaching midnight, and Atsushi Horigami, owner of the Tokyo whisky bar Zoetrope, places another snifter and accompanying bottle in front of me. This one is from the densetsu - legendary - Ichiro's Malt Hanyu Card Series. The Seven of Spades, to be exact. There's 54 of them, known as the Card Series, and consist of bottlings by Japanese distiller rockstar Ichiro Akuto from the stocks of his grandfather's defunct Hanyu distillery. To put into context how highly sought-after these bottles are, a full Card set sold for a half million dollars in 2013. A single Seven of Spades bottle occasionally pops up on auction for $10,000 USD. To have one Card in a bar is noteworthy. To have nine, like Zoetrope did during my inaugural visit a few years ago, is astonishing.
But astonishing could be the correct term for the 300 bottle roster that Zoetrope boasts. From my vantage point at the bar, the staples from Nikka and Suntory are prominently visible, but my interest lies in the rarer and more exotic bottles that line the shelves behind where Atsushi-san tends. Most of the 7-page menu consists of distilleries that don't export outside of the country like Karuizawa, Mars, Eigashima, and a quaint distillery in the foothills of Mt. Fuji known as Fuji-Gotemba.
That night, I was quickly becoming a disciple of Ichiro's, having sampled from Zoetrope's impressive collection of Venture Whisky Ltd expressions, which comprises of Ichiro's Malt, Ichiro's Choice, and a smattering of releases from new distillery Chichibu.
I breathe in the ripe fruit nose and sigh as I take my first sip of the Spades. The onset is the familiar sweet ripe plum from the vatting's cognac finish, rounding off with well-balanced oak and just a hint of coffee spice. It's rich in mouthfeel and feels luxurious. Thankfully, it doesn't have to be a luxury, at $30 USD for a 1 oz pour, considering the price that could be charged for a dram of this liquid gold. Nothing on the menu, no matter how rare, would seriously break the bank, which is incredible considering the rotating collection that Atsushi-san sources.
If bourbon generally has a sweet robust character and scotch is known for its smoky peat, Japanese whisky is definitely more enigmatic and subtle. Most of the whisky is delicate to suit the Japanese palate, marrying well with the coconut notes from maturation in mizunara oak barrels. Some, like the Eigashima Sakura, are further aged in ex-shochu casks, adding additional notes of lychee and sweet vanilla pudding. Others, like the Mars Malt Gallery, are slightly peated as a tribute to the birth of Japanese whisky from the art of distilling in Scotland.
Zoetrope itself is tiny in the way most Japanese establishments are, barely seating 6 at the bar and perhaps another 6 at two low tables facing a projection screen. Most nights a silent movie or animated film plays in the background, a testament to Atsushi-san's other love, cinema, and from where Zoetrope receives its namesake.
As for Atsushi-san himself, he's resigned to the fame that meticulously curating his country's whiskies has garnered over the years. He talks of having to add beers to the menu and a cover charge from the influx of tourists that have flocked to his establishment after gracing "Best Bars in the World" lists. He's tired of having to explain multiple times a night to customers scoffing at the absence of the notorious 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask that the expression was purely a foreign release, not something that was sold locally in Japan.
However, prove that you're not just another gaikokujin tourist that that won't venture from the basic Yamazaki flight, or worse yet, say you're not a fan of whisky and try to order a gin and tonic (I witnessed this myself!), and Atsushi-san's serious demeanor drops away. In my handful of visits over the years the community at the bar has been an eclectic mix of locals still awed by the skyrocketing global popularity of Japanese whisky, industry professionals making their mecca, and lovers of the deliciously varied spirit known as whisky.
It's almost 4 AM, closing time for Zoetrope, when I step back out onto the brightly lit streets of Tokyo's hectic Shinjuku district. Three stories up, the bright red neon sign that pronounces simply "Shot Bar" still glows. It's the only indication that such an unassuming location houses not only one of the best whisky bars in Japan, but an intimate place for whisky aficionados from all over the world to gather and experience the relatively new phenomenon that is Japanese whisky.
I smile as I recall my conversation with Atsushi-san on the difficulty in locating his bar while sipping on a pour of Ken's Choice, an American whisky shipped to Japan to finish aging in a Chichibu barrel.
"You know," I say as I swirl the deep amber liquid in its glass. "I almost couldn't find this place!"
He is stoic in the way customary of the Japanese, and then a small smile breaks through.
"The best things in life are worth searching for."