To drink whisky in Tokyo is to partake in centuries of culture—not just of whisky culture, but also of dedication to craft and service. Japanese hospitality and artisanship have few equals in the world, and it shows in the countless whisky outposts throughout the sprawling megalopolis. Drinkers at fine whisky establishments are greeted with a warm towel, small portions of curated snacks to accompany their drams, and white-coated bartenders ready to guide them through thoughtfully selected collections of scotch, bourbon, and Japanese whisky.
Visitors should note that while there’s plenty of Japanese whisky at bars and shops (scroll down for more on buying whisky to take home), there are countless other styles of whisky to enjoy as well, from Scotland, America, and further abroad, including many releases that are exclusive to Asia or Japan. Also important to note: many bars in Japan impose cover charges, usually no more than $10. Bars are often tucked into nondescript basements or on an upper floor of a small office building, so take care when seeking out these hidden gems.
Tokyo’s small (sometimes tiny), limited-seating whisky bars provide an intimate and thoughtful environment in which to savor a special dram. Here are some top recommendations.
Matsui Building B1, 1-6-8 Yurakucho Chiyoda-ku
M-F: 6pm-4am Sat-Sun: 6pm-11:30pm
Campbelltoun Loch is an 8-seat basement bar with barely any extra room once full (I did say some were tiny). The bar itself is used as bottle storage space and owner Nobiyuku Nakamura will stand on a step stool to reach over to serve you. Sit—or more likely stand if it’s full—at the bar and your back will be inches from the wall. Space comes at a premium, so the selection is limited to only the most compelling whiskies. You’ll find vintage Cadenhead’s and Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottles side-by-side with a plethora of hard-to-find distillery offerings, like older Feìs Ìle bottles and Japan-only releases. The collection might not be as expansive as at larger bars, but what’s here is always worth a taste.
Main Stage Roppongi Biru B1, 3-9-11 Roppongi, Minato-ku
Cask Strength and its sister bars, Mizunara Cask and Wodka Tonic, are handsomely appointed lounges with low backed leather seats lined up at a broad wood-topped bar. The array of bottles on the back bar covers a wide range, from recent limited-edition releases like Ardbeg Twenty Something to a pre-prohibition Maryland rye. Name a producer and the bartender is likely to pull something interesting, like a 1980s, Japan-only, 8 year old Heaven Hill barrel proof bourbon.
JBA Bar Yoshu Hakubutsukan
3rd Floor 6-9-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku
M-F: 6pm-2am Sat-Sun: 6pm-12am
Stepping into Yoshu Hakubutsukan is a bit like finding yourself in a disheveled hoarder’s basement. It’s dimly lit and cluttered, except instead of bowling trophies and records, Yoshu Hakubutsukan is covered in a dizzying collection of bottles. There are bourbon and scotch in abundance, but Yoshu Hakubutsukan is one of the best spots in Tokyo to partake in rare Japanese whisky. You’ll find unique single casks from Nikka and Suntory, as well as hyper-limited releases from Chichibu, like store- or bar-exclusive bottles. There’s a menu, but it doesn’t even begin to encompass everything on the shelves, so make sure you take a look around before ordering.
Hibiya Bar Whisky-S II
8F Noco Building 5-6-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku
If you are a fan of Suntory’s Hakushu distillery, Hibiya Bar Whisky-S II is the place to visit. Hakushu barrels line the walls, and there are more discarded Hakushu 12 bottles lined up than you can count. Hibiya stocks all manner of Hakushu—from the 10 year old and 18 year old to other limited releases—but also offers an exclusive selection bottled specifically for the bar. A trio of Hakushu single malts entitled “Fresh & Smoky,” “Sweet & Fruity,” and “Rich & Smooth” provide different looks into the component characteristics of Hakushu. Hibiya also stocks many other Suntory whiskies, like the 2017 Yamazaki Mizunara Cask 18 year old and Yamazaki 25 year old.
Nikka Blender’s Bar
Nikka Whisky Bldg B1F, 5-4-31 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku
Nikka Blender’s Bar is the Tokyo outpost of its namesake parent company. Every conceivable Nikka whisky is poured here, from vintage Nikka Maltbase blends to the latest releases like Miyagikyo and Yoichi Moscatel and Rum Wood Finish single malts. You’ll also find bottles exclusive to the Blender’s Bar, including Key Malt bottlings like “Sherry & Sweet” and “Peaty & Salty.” These single malts highlight core characteristics of Nikka’s flavor profiles, like Miyagikyo Distillery’s more floral notes and Yoichi’s light ash and peat. Key Malts are typically NAS products, but the Blender’s Bar stocks 12 year old versions of Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts, as well as a grain whisky.
Buying Whisky in Tokyo
Unsurprisingly, Tokyo is littered with all types of liquor shops. You might be surprised to find whisky available everywhere, from the corner 7-11 to entire sections of department stores like Isetan and Bic Camera, a mainstay in the whisky-hunting circuit. Several chains are reliable resources, like Shinanoya and Liquor Mountain, and specialty shops—like the well-known Liquors Hasegawa—can be found in every neighborhood.
But if you’re looking for rare bottles of Japanese single malt, be prepared for some disappointment: these days, there’s a dearth of aged Japanese whisky because eager whisky lovers have snatched it all up. On the bright side, there’s a stunning amount of scotch and bourbon, much of which you will never find outside Japan. Your mileage will necessarily vary: over the past several years, I’ve found bottles like a National Distillers Old Grand Dad 114, an array of limited edition Four Roses—sometimes in abundance—and an Ardbeg Very Young.
Another, less reliable source for buying bottles is whisky bars. It is possible and legalTK to purchase entire bottles at certain bars—I recently acquired a limited-edition Chichibu this way—but this depends on the venue and the whisky. If you see an unopened bottle at a bar, it couldn’t hurt to politely inquire if it is for sale. Exercise extreme politeness—this is Japan, after all.
Here are some of my favorite shops in Tokyo to buy whisky.
Shinanoya is a mainstay for whisky shopping in Tokyo. You’re likely to find something from every whisky-producing region here, but Shinanoya is particularly scotch-heavy. The selection includes single casks from numerous distilleries bottled for whisky shops and societies around Japan and an array of independent bottlers like That Boutique-y Whisky Company. If there is any special Japanese whisky to be had in the market, you’ll likely find it at Shinanoya. As an added bonus, Shinanoya serves double-duty as a boutique produce and food market with an impressive selection of wine and sake as well.
3-4-14 Mejiro, Toshima-ku
A specialty shop just steps from the Mejiro stop on the JR Yamanote line, half of Tanakaya stocks craft beers, and the other half features bourbon and scotch. You’re not likely to find much Japanese whisky here, but on a given day you’ve got a chance of catching some old and vintage gems, such as a Cadenhead’s Canadian whisky from the ‘80s.
3-7-22 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Liquor Express is an exception to the rule. While most of Tokyo’s interesting Japanese whisky has been bought up by collectors, Liquor Express in Ginza has consistently maintained a healthy stock. You’ll find age-stated Suntory and Nikka, Chichibu releases, and all manner of single casks. The catch, which you were probably expecting, is that you will pay a significant premium on these offerings. However, Liquor Express does tend to have other bottles without the massive mark-up, like older Nikka Maltbase blends and normally distillery-exclusive gift bottles.