Now with all the food entries from Japan the last fortnight you must be wondering — Mel’s been pampering his stomach, but what about his liver? I assure you it’s not aching nor wanting; it was fed very well, with surprisingly only 1 night of seriously blotto stuff.
However, it’s right that I talk a bit about my drinking adventures in Japan. I will break this entry up into 4 categories — cocktails, rum, beer and sake. These were the four I really explored during this trip and you may be very surprised by some of it here.
A Taste of Cocktail — Japanese Natural Style
I found Gen Yamamoto [ゲン山本] by accident on the web one day during my research and found it intriguing — a tasting menu for cocktails. So I made a late booking and decided to go to the Azabu-juban speakeasy one night after dinner in nearby Roppongi. In fact it was the night of the amazing wagyu offal tasting menu at Sanda [さんだ].
An interesting bar, seating only about 8 people, somewhere serene almost, like a hybrid bar-temple. Stunning bartop. Gen Yamamoto was a veteran of NYC’s drinking scene and he’s trying to create something local that’s different. Instead of getting folks blotto on various well-known cocktails, he’s trying to use seasonal ingredients to create tasty drinks.
In other words, it’s almost like a juice bar for adults.
The course menu is either 4 or 6 items, and I went with the 6.
This shows the first 3 items. The first drink was a slightly fizzy drink with fresh quince fortified by sake. He spends a lot of time freshly juicing, mashing and working ingredients, and each drink is freshly made. The second focuses on the yellow mandarin, again freshly juiced, with a touch of daikon and shochu. Very refreshing. The third is based on strawberries, again freshly muddied, with cloudy sake. Again, extremely refreshing.
The items are one-by-one, but I’m just consolidating space here. But the second and third were excellent. The alcohol is almost an afterthought here.
The fourth item is a popular one, using freshly muddied locally-grown kiwi. There’s even some sake lees in this item, fortified by sake. Very refreshing again! Fifth on the list was the first to use a non-Japanese alcohol — Templeton rye — to bring out the ginger. Again, not focusing on the alcohol, the ginger is strong and soothing. Finally, the last of the course was a hot drink featuring the kumquat.
I found this service interesting, but I may have broken his concentration when I asked him (as I do all my bartenders) to make something off the menu. He gave it some thought and clearly he had some back-ups.
The first was an utterly delicious drink using fresh local apples and Yamazaki single malt. Totally delicious. However, he seems to have been stymied when I asked for a second (and last) one, and he basically repeated the last from the course but switched the fruit — a hot yuzu-based treat. Nice.
Fantastic idea. Not a place to get blotto, as you barely taste the alcohol, but it’s like a really cool adult juice bar, with some fantastic juices. It’s very Japan.
Island People Like Island Stuff — Japan’s R(h)um Haven
One place I heard whispers about that I needed to check out was a little bar dedicated to the goodness of the Carribean, Tafia [タフィア]. A little place in the chic (and train-less) district of Nishi-azabu (near Roppongi), I headed there after an incredible sushi dinner at nearby Taku [拓]. It’s only 30 seconds away, and also about 30 seconds away from the temple of pork Butagumi [豚組] if you want to do a post-meal treat for yourself.
Easy to find as you see various Carribean flags in the window. I walked into this bar and was like, wow…
I thought my dearly departed Elettaria had a good r(h)um selection, but this is just insane. This is truly a labour of love, as I spoke to the proprietor about her devotion to this tipple. I told her I’d leave my fate in her hands and love to try some of her favourites.
These all came one-by-one, mind you, but again I’m consolidating…
The first was an excellent Rhum JR from Martinique. A very typical rum, delicious — perfect after all that sushi (and dry sake). Next up was unique, the Santa Maria – from Okinawa! Yes, a local rum, aged in whisky casks. I gotta say it’s wee rough, and almost tasted more whisky than rum. But interesting. The third was a mind-blowing beauty, the Rhum Bielle from Martinique. She told me this was her favourite, but it’s hot as hell at nearly 60%. Lovely clear stuff, deep rich flavours here despite the burn. Mmm…
Stupidly I kept going, knowing I am gonna be wasted after this. But was nice chatting with some folks enjoying a more tempered drinking experience. The proprietor also told me since there are quite many Central American embassies nearby, this is their favourite watering hole — no kidding! More!
The fourth rum was a very limited bottled rum from Haiti. It’s quite interesting, with a kick that’s more than its already higher proofage. A 2004 vintage, very nice. Next up was the Rhum Agricole Extra Vieux that had been matured in sherry casks. Interesting flavours, not quite my thing though. We closed with the rich Matsusalem from the Dominican Republic (maybe one day Cuba again?).
I honestly don’t have much memory from this point of the night, as this was a LOT of booze. Too much, to be honest. It caused my only rough hangover for this trip…ugh… But it was damn worth it! A total place to check out, really! And it’s open until goodness knows what time!
Craft Beer Arrives — as well as Hipsterism…
Much like so many places around the world, Japan — a heavy beer-drinking country — has a growing industry in craft brewing. Albeit the numbers are much smaller, and often populated by ex-pats and travelling hipsters, they are nevertheless interesting.
One of the best places is called Goodbeer Faucets in Shibuya. I had finished 2 amazing Matsusaka steaks at the amazing Satou [サトウ] in Kichijoji and needed to change trains/subway at Shibuya anyway, so decided to stop off. It was the hottest room I’ve ever been…which is why I drank more than I usually would.
A nice selection, I ended up drinking a few of the dark local brews. They were quite good, I failed to take down details as I was sweating profusely and worried the phone may short out… I do remember a nice dark ale that was rich, a stout that was the closest thing to coffee I drank all trip long, and a chocolate stout that they use for a special dessert drink (I didn’t do that). Snacking on some octopus-and-lotus root fritters, this was pretty cool.
But the heat, and the voices of annoying ex-pats, drove me out. But certainly worth a trip.
I also made a stop at Craft Beer Market closer to my hotel after that utterly amazing eel tasting at Kabuto [かぶと]. This place was packed out the door so I drank at one of the outside standing tables (perfect, to blow some of the eel and charcoal aroma off my clothes), but the damn group of expat workers and their hipster friends were so ridiculously annoying I could be in a hipster bar in Brooklyn if I closed my eyes. I left after 1 so-so dark ale.
Clearly craft brewing is on the rise in Japan, but finding places to drink them tend to subject you to the most annoying things you want to avoid — hipsters. And expats moaning about their lives don’t help either. FFS, if you’re so unhappy in Japan and can’t deal with things here, go the fuck home to Portland or Austin!
And Of Course, the Sake…
No drinking experience in Japan can be complete without sake. I enjoyed quite many over my fortnight in Japan. I can’t read the labels and some of the subtlety is lost with me, but they are quite good.
These are the ones I had at the amazing sushi experience at Iwa [いわ]. We went from dry to rich on this as the course progressed (choice of chef).
These are the ones I had at the awesome kaiseki course at Nakashima [なかしま] in Hiroshima. Again, house’s choice. The first was a special local one that apparently was served to Obama during his Tokyo visit. The other two complemented the meal very well during different points. Kudos to the pairings.
This first one here was from my eel night at the amazing Kabuto [かぶと] – this is the one they say complement the eel best. The next two came from Taku [拓], that amazing sushi experience. I had forgotten Taku has a specialty in wine pairings with its food, so these were my tipple that awesome night (before my rum adventure).
Plus so many more I had here and there, it’s a rich world. I need to learn more about it for sure, to prepare for my next visit!
As you can see, my liver enjoyed this fortnight in Japan very much! Maybe not as much as my stomach, but this trip was always about my stomach rather than liver. The liver’s won too many times over my 42 years, so…
Gen Yamamoto [ゲン山本]
1-29-1 Shoto, 2F, Shibuya
Craft Beer Market