I’m sure we’ve all experienced these little twists of fate that inexorably draw us towards a place we hadn’t intended on. So it was when I found myself in Tokyo’s Ginza district, ready to immerse myself in the local bar scene. Before coming to Japan, I had read Stefan van Eycken’s excellent Whisky Rising, which features a chapter on the best whisky bars in town. Clearly Bar High Five was the place to go, or so I thought. Alas, I’ll never know (or at least not until my next trip to Tokyo), for High Five was jam-packed, with a line stretching all the way to the elevator. Fortunately, another of the book’s recommendations was just around the corner. We almost missed the entrance (a sliding door in a dim alley), but once inside we were able to descend the stairs into the bar.
Whereas High Five had been rowdy and smoky, Bar Kage was an oasis of calm. A bit of a dark oasis, it must be said, but once your eyes get used to the dark it’s really quite cosy. The interior is classy in a minimalist way, featuring dark wood and concrete. The result is a cave-like atmosphere that’s intimate rather than gloomy. And that’s all for the best, because it provides a good setup to talk to the bartender, who in Japan really acts as a host(ess). And with owner-bartender Takeshi Kageyama I could not have wished for a better host. His knowledge of Japanese whiskies is vast, and his passion for Ichiro’s Malt in particular is a delight to see.
There was no menu, but give Takeshi an idea of what you’re after and there’ll be suggestions aplenty. He makes impressive looking cocktails too, featuring Japanese ingredients such as yuzu and sake, but also more exotic inputs such as lychee or Curaçao liqueur. But since I’d come here for the whisky, I ordered a Yoichi instead, the slightly smoky single malt from Nikka’s first distillery on Hokkaido. We were the only tourists there, and clearly the locals preferred Scotch. Japanese bars have a habit of placing the bottle of the drink ordered in front of guests, so it was easy to see what everyone was drinking. There were some Laphroaigs and Lagavulins on the table, but highballs were also being served, mixed with drams such as Cardhu and Glenrothes. I was here to explore Japanese whisky though, so I asked Takeshi to recommend me some Ichiro’s Malt. After finding out I could also switch to half drams for exactly half the price, I chose the Double Distilleries and MWR (Mizunara Wood Reserve) bottlings. The Double Distilleries was particularly sumptuous, a vatting of old sherry stocks from the now-closed distillery at Hanyu, and Japanese oak from Chichibu distillery.
Admittedly, the cover charge at Bar Kage is steep, but that’s all the more reason to stay a while and enjoy the excellent selection of whiskies. So for my next drink I was sorely tempted by the Hibiki 21 year old, but wasn’t quite ready to dish out €40 for one dram. Instead, I went for something cheaper but also less exciting: Kirin’s Fuji-Sanroku Signature Blend. It couldn’t quite live up to the Ichiro’s Malt from before, but was a pleasant enough drink nonetheless.
When I mentioned to Takeshi that I’d read about him in Whisky Rising, he became very excited and showed me his signed copy of the book, along with pictures of him and the author. I guess not a lot of locals read about whisky, let alone in English… I could’ve stayed all night to sample Japanese whiskies, but unfortunately we had to leave to catch the last metro home. Before we did though, Takeshi gifted me a 20cl bottle of Ichiro’s Malt Wine Wood Reserve, an amazing gesture that took me by surprise, but which I appreciated immensely. It provided the perfect memento to a very special night in Tokyo. Thank you Bar Kage!
Sakae Building B1