By T. Dietz
We’re at the tail-end of a five week trip to South East Asia spending a few transition days in Tokyo when I’m ready for a night with no kids, alone time with my wife, and a great whisky. A fitting end to a great summer holiday adventure that covered so much-from an elephant safari to diving with sharks and giant moray eels in Thailand. As we at the GAC have pointed out on more than one occasion, we like to finish our adventures (of all and any kind) with a whisky (see our previous whisky tasting article).
I’ve been to Japan, and Tokyo in particular, several times and know first hand of the Japanese’s passion for cocktails and whisky. So instead of heading down to the Shangri-La Hotel bar or the Park Hyatt Hotel’s New York bar, where too many people need to have a drink because of the bar scene in the film Lost In Translation, I turn to the interwebs for the “best whisky bar in Tokyo”.
Up came a number of great bars highlighting chemistry major-be-proud alcohol concoctions, hand shaved ice, dinner-jacketed bartenders, and rarified whiskies from around the world. Many, like the Society at the Park Hotel or the Bar High Five, would easily of met my need for the evening. But, I was intrigued by several articles that highlighted the oldest master barman in Tokyo, Mitsui Yoshida. He is known for having trained many of Tokyo’s great mixologists, his perfect ice and Yoshida Martini, and one of his specialty cocktails called the Kaikan Fizz. Turns out he is bar tending at a bar called Y&M Kisling and one on the “best of” list. Unfortunately, he only tends bar a couple of nights a week and it was not a night that my wife and I had free. BTW, yes, GAC adventures can include your beautiful blonde wife.
The Y&M Kisling sounded intriguing in and of itself. A small venue that was named for the French painter Moise Kisling and highlighting his painting Jeune fille en rouge, 1925. Although M Yoshida would not be there we figured his protégés would be. Off we went to the Ginza district of Tokyo.
We were let off at a plain looking office building that, without the sign, would provide no insight as to what was up on the 7th floor. We jumped on a tiny elevator that made us intimately acquainted with one other vertical traveler and up we went. We weren’t off the elevator five seconds when a door swung open and a gentleman in a crème-colored dinner jacket and dark pants invited us into what felt initially like someone’s apartment. A few feet of richly stained wood paneling opened up into an intimate narrow, low lighted old world bar right out of the early part of the 1900’s. Ambience perfection. Just four very nicely dressed patrons were huddled at either end of the long bar- barely looking up from their conversation, drinks and smokes- and we were escorted to the middle section. The bar was pristine with a variety of chilled glasses on display and a deep selection of distillates and spirits. And at its center, the Kisling artwork stood out in riveting contrast to the subdued surroundings.
My wife and I both smiled at what was likely going to be a great evening despite the Master barman’s absence when he just appeared and bee-lined straight to us. With a dignified bow and two other bar tenders standing in military attention at his sides he asked what we’d like to drink. I couldn’t help myself and despite the apparent obviousness of his presence I turned to my wife and said meet M Yosihida, legendary barman.
Without hesitation, my wife ordered up the Yoshida Martini. In an instant, hands were flying around as a perfectly frosted Martini glass was placed in front of M Yoshida and the mesmerizing art of cocktail alchemy played out, perfectly orchestrated. M Yoshida pulled out his pristine ice and chilled everything he used in the process-constantly replacing the ice fresh. Never once did he use a jigger but rather his years of honed skill to pour the exact amount of ingredients into the shaker – a dash of orange bitter, Gordon’s gin, Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth and lemons. His concentration was absolute and his “assistants” never took their eyes off of his efforts nor were a step behind in having what came next at his fingertips. His stirring of the mix, which you can see in the lead-in picture, was performed with the utmost concentration. He finished the cocktail with an absolutely perfect pour and squeezed a lemon a few inches over the glass from left to right. He then presented the drink to my wife with a hand gesture but never looking up and bowed. Over the course of the evening we watched this choreographed mastery many times.
M Yoshida didn’t move until after my wife took her fist sip and smiled. Another bow followed. He then turned his attention to me and what would I like. I said that my experience with whisky was good but extremely limited when it came to Japanese malts with only a 12 year Suntory Hakushu (tasted at our GAC whisky event) under my belt. He quickly brought out a number of Japanese whiskies – a 17 year Nikka, a 12 year Taketsuru, and a 12 year Hibiki. I tasted each one and favored the Nikka. He nodded in approval and moved away to other patrons while I enjoyed smooth brown liquid. Over the next bit my wife and I relived some of the adventurous trip we were just finishing up and decided it was time for another round.
Having enjoyed the Yoshida Martini so much she elected for it a second time and M Yoshida again enthralled us with his time-honed skills. In broken English he asked us where we were from. We said the San Francisco area and he was excited to tell us he’d been there for a visit years before. I told him again how much I liked the Nikka and he then just stared at me – kind of like when you’re deciding on whether you should do something or not. He turned to one of his assistant bar tenders and after a brief and hushed conversation the assistant bar tender left the bar and went to the wall seating behind us. He lifted one of the seats and reached in. He quickly took the bottle to M Yoshida and then returned to the wall seating to put it back in place.
The bottle was in Japanese with beautiful artwork on it. M Yoshida opened the bottle, took a glass and poured ever so small a portion. He breathed in the aroma and then slid the glass in front of me. I honestly can’t remember the smell. I felt I was drinking something that doesn’t often come out for his patrons. He waited for me to taste it and when I did I just thought it held up to the best whiskies I have ever had. He smiled for the first time and the bottle was taken back to its hiding spot. After some searching I figured out I had tasted from an older stock bottle of Karuizawa whisky, a rare and expensive malt. Nope, I didn’t even think at that point to pull my phone camera back out being completely in the moment.
But two more treats came when first I noticed that the bill did not include my special tasting and then M Yoshida came around from the bar with his assistant and asked for my camera which he gave to another assistant to memorialize our evening adventure in Tokyo.