I spent last week in Tokyo and Seoul. It was my second trip to Tokyo, and what most surprised me was how much of a whiskey city it was… I hadn’t noticed during my last trip, which was a lot more frantic. I had more time in the city this trip, and was with some fellow whiskey lovers from work, so we quickly identified some incredible spots – with our last stop in Tokyo being one of the most fun bourbon experiences I’ve ever had.
Cask Strength, a bar in the Roppongi district, was our after dinner drink spot the day we got in. The timing was unfortunate since exhaustion was kicking too hard to stay for more than one drink. The selection was incredible – we had an Elijah Craig 18 and 21 SiB opened for us, and I got the chance to immediately taste the Four Roses Platinum, one of the Four Roses bottling they do only in Japan. The Platinum was good, aged an average of 8 yrs (I think, but it was all in Japanese…) – but definitely different than the US FR bottlings- much lighter on the front. While I enjoyed the complexity it achieved in a very floral palate (light citrus with a nice char contrast, and layers of the sweeter spices), I missed the rye and deep spice that I so love in Four Roses. There were a lot of interesting versions of our traditional bourbons as you can see from the photo (apologies for poor phone camera shot).
On another night, we visited a bar called Woodz, in the Kagurazaka part of Toyko – another great whiskey find. While I wasn’t able to get a shot of their selection, they had a lot of interesting bottles as well. My colleague tried an Old St Nick (a Heaven Hill Japan only product), which he seemed to really enjoy. I spotted an interested bottle of Henry McKenna Single Barrel, unopened and looking a big aged. After asking to look at it, it turns out it was a 1994 barreling; so barreled the year they launched the product (although obviously not to appear until the product was 10 years old). Since I’m a huge fan of Elijah Craig and I’ve enjoyed the more modern HMKs I’ve tried, I went with it and enjoyed. It’s not a fancy bourbon, but the normal pepper and char that I remember from HMK were there, along with a heavy corn finish. There was a slight oiliness to it that I don’t remember in either EC or HMK; perhaps that was a result of a long time in the bottle. But overall, I enjoyed it, and enjoyed getting to taste a bottling I would never see again.
Lastly, but most importantly, was our visit to Liquors Hasegawa, a store located in the Tokyo Metro Station, and my new favorite place on earth. Imagine one of the best selections of all whiskeys – including bourbon – you’ve ever seen. Now imagine that the same place LETS YOU TASTE OPEN BOTTLES OF THESE RARE WHISKEYS…. for a pittance!! There are numerous open bottles through the store, and for a few hundred yen (a few dollars), you can have a 1oz pour. There were four bottles of the FR 2012 SiB, the largest Willett Family Estate collection I’ve ever seen, and a few more items I mention below. And I didn’t even have enough time to explore all shelves (I was on my way to the airport). I tasted a wonderful Willett, aged 17 years, then one of my favorites – 17 yr Vintage Bourbon (of which I brought a bottle home) and most incredibly, finished the last pour of the Parker Heritage 27 Year Old release from 2008. They had two bottles of that left – for $300 each- and I just couldn’t spring for it. Nor, quite honestly, did I think it deserved a $300 price tag, although I really enjoyed it (and the $4 tasting price tag was just unbelievable).
Since I’m a huge KBD fan, I started with Vintage, which I’ve always loved, but never run into a bottle of. It was wonderfully smooth, with the sugar and fruit I remember, but with enough heat to keep it from overcoming. The finish has a pleasant smoke to it.
Given their incredible collection, I had to taste a Willett and the 17 caught our eye. It was a powerful 128 proof, but sipped beautifully – full bodied, but with heat that skipped the throat after the tongue and landed in the chest. Much deeper burn than the Vintage, but a nice follow-up to the sweetness there.
The PH 27 was so much fun to try – the nose was inspiring in its depth, with oak that lingered after I lifted my nose. I worried it would be too much wood, but it was balanced nicely by an early sweetness -smooth caramel and vanilla – and a spicy finish that smoothed into a last bit of vanilla oak at the end.
It was an awesome work trip that, quite luckily, included some incredible whiskey tasting in some unexpected places.