Tokyo Takeover: Give Me All Your Beer and Bourbon

Look, it's no secret that I love whisk(e)y, craft beer and good pub food so yes, of course, I've got some recommendations for Tokyo. 

Ant'N Bee

This small basement bar tucked away in Roppongi doesn't seem like much until you're presented with the twenty tap beer list divided into lagers, weizens, hybrids, ales, black beers and "strong" all from Japanese breweries. Beers can be ordered in four sizes, so you don't have to commit to something you don't know you love, except for the strong beers which only come in small because, well, they're strong. The taps rotate but my favorite while we were there was the "Maitai King", a 12.7% Imperial Stout that wasn't messing around. My preference is for dark beers and I was very happy with the number of porters and stouts available when we went, not something I get to say often.

Along with a long beer list, they also have a pretty extensive and varied food menu. More people than I would've expected were ordering some of the Italian specialties but we played it safe and went with Japanese pub classics karaage (fried chicken) and house pickles. I'm not saying it doesn't exist but I've never had bad fried chicken in Japan and this was no exception, crispy on the outside and hot and steamy on the inside, these were the perfect bite size morsels to go with beer. The potatoes that come with are hand cut and also fried to a golden perfection. We had both the regular house pickles (daikon, lotus root and carrots) and the seasonal special (pickled leaks with balsamic) and they were both delicious. My one complaint is that theoretically this bar has "smoking" and "non-smoking" areas but it's so small it doesn't really matter. Unfortunately indoor smoking is just part of traveling in Japan.

Ant'N Bee is located at 5 Chome-1-5 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo, Japan (basement level) and is open 5:00pm-6:00am 365 days a year (yep). You can find out more on their facebook page or website.

Craftheads

Wait, if this bar is called Craftheads, why are those pictures of bourbon? Well, my friends, this place does happen to have a good number of taps but THIS is the bourbon selection:

I know, I'm sorry, it was dark and I took these pictures with my phone but trust me when I say this is three rows, three or four bottles deep of bourbon. Not scotch, not Japanese whisky, not Irish whisky, just beautiful beautiful American bourbons and ryes. For those not in the know, good bourbon is nearly impossible to find outside of the US, except for one liquor store in Bratislava (true story) and Japan. After all, Suntory is really Beam Suntory these days (along with Jim, this also means Maker's Mark, Basil Hayden's and Knob Creek) and Kirin owns my favorite underrated whiskey, Four Roses. Along with more types of Four Roses than I even knew existed they also had a full line up from Buffalo Trace Distillery (Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blantons and of course, PAPPY) so basically every one of the three pours I had that evening was an agonizing decision but I left pretty happy and I can't wait to take Dan there on our next trip to Tokyo.

Here we had delicious perfectly fried onion rings with a spicy mayo and more house pickles. I will always order the house pickles and I have yet to ever regret that decision.

Crafteads is located at 1 Chome-13-10 Jinnan, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0041, Japan. They are open Tues-Fri 5PM-Midnight, Saturday 3PM-11PM and Sunday 3PM-10PM. You can find out more information on their website.

Looking for more mouthwatering food pics? Check out my new food only insta @runawaybunnyeats
 

Taipei Takeover: Japanese Whisky and House Infusions at Wa Shu

House Infusions and Distillations at Wa Shu bar in Taipei, Taiwan

"Have you thought about what flavor you would like to try next?" the bar back asked.

It was all I HAD thought about since ordering my first cocktail, an Old Fashioned made with a house infused smoked whisky. Dan had been the one to originally ask about the bottle labeled "Smoky" but after hearing the description of the cocktail he turned to me with a questioning look, knowing it was right up my alley. Next he asked about the cedar bottle which it turned out was used to make a Manhattan. These are each our cocktails of choice, so we were immediately off to a good start.

"Ummm" I tore my eyes away from the collection of Japanese whisky bottles three deep behind the bar, covering shelves around the room and snuggled into roof beams.

"Is that one Jalapeno Pepper?"

He furrowed his brow.

"Japanese Pepper?" Dan chimed in.

"Yes!"

Even better. He left to consult with the bartender over what kind of drink would be made with the Japanese Pepper whisky. Dan chose a Taiwanese Basil house distillation.

My smoky Old Fashioned bordered on just a little too much smoke, especially since the bite the friendly Taiwanese bar back had suggested with it was a smoked chocolate caramel that seemed a little too matchy matchy. The chocolate caramel with the pine infused Manhattan on the other hand, tasted like campfire in the best way imaginable.

He came back over.

"The Japanese Pepper we will use to make a sort of whisky sour. For the Taiwanese Basil we will also make a sour with a little bit of spice. After this drink, all our customers ask for fried chicken because Taiwanese chicken is made with a lot of this basil and spicy peppers"

We laugh and also ask where we can get some of this chicken because fried chicken with basil and spicy peppers is all I want to eat all day every day.

"Oh you know, just from the side of the road"

We have clearly spend our days in Taiwan on the wrong roads.

For this drink the Japanese bartender/owner comes over to prepare the drink in front of us. Until this point he's been busy with the business of setting up the bar for the evening, as we were the first customers. I thought maybe he didn't speak English since the menu was offered in Japanese and Chinese and we were relying heavily on the bar back who didn't seem to know the purpose of each liquor yet but I was wrong.

"Do you know what Japanese pepper is?" he asked.

"Is it sansho?"

"Yes," he gave a slight approving nod, continuing to pluck basil and mix efficiently while speaking with us. "It will leave a quite distinct flavor on your tongue, do you like it?"

"Very much"

The mixing continued, stirring in two cocktail shakers and then into a blender with some ice.

"Are there any bars like this in New York?" a note of pride in his voice.

The owner had been listening to our conversations with his employee. As always, we had explained that we were from New York but live in Seoul.

"No. I don't think so. There are bars that do maybe five or so of their own infusions, but nothing like this."

"They don't do their own distillations?"

"I don't know any. I don't think so"

"Tokyo the infusion are quite good but not so much the distillations"

He sets our drinks on the counter and I make a mental note to ask him for Tokyo bar recommendations for whenever we find ourselves there next. A mental note I will completely forget until we're on our way home.

I'm happy to not that my sour has the foam indicative of being made with egg white even though I hadn't been paying enough attention to see him put one in. The blended ice adds even a bit more thickness but not so much that it would qualify as a frozen drink. The cocktail is tart but creamy from the frothed white and the sansho pepper is strong but not overwhelming. I definitely get a bit of tongue tingle. Dan is happy with his basil sour but doesn't love it as much as he had loved his Manhattan.

For our next round I choose Yuzu Salt Shochu and Dan chooses Raspberry Whisky. These are also both made into sours, mine with the added addition of a salt rim and a slice of dried yuzu on top. Dan's was a bit a sweet and syrupy for our taste, the only major miss of the night, though I'm sure for somebody who regularly drinks fruity drinks it would be delicious. I loved my Yuzu Salt Sour and it's a hard call between that and the Japanese Pepper for my favorite drink of the night. I really loved the sansho, but I could probably drink more of the yuzu, though I can't imagine ever going to Wa Shu and not wanting to try yet another concoction.

We discuss another round and I'm torn between wanting to try another flavor and my love for the Japanese whisky hidden in every conceivable nook and cranny in the bar. This may be the only place able to ride out the Japanese whisky shortage without have to significantly raise prices, there's so many bottles.

"Are you ready for just whisky?" the bartender asks us.

I let Dan choose first because I'm still thinking.

"Do you have the Hakushu 12?"

Nothing crazy, but I've gone to Japan three times in the last year and never managed to get my hands on a bottle of Hakushu with an age distinction, even at the Yamazaki Distilery.

He thinks a minute then turns to the bottles directly behind him and pulls out one of the green bottles hidden in the back. He looks at me.

"I'll have the same"

"Ice?"

"No"

"You are able to get this in New York?" he asks, surprised.

"Oh no, well maybe you can find it but it's very expensive now. We live in Seoul though so we have to go to Japan for good whisky"

He nods and pushes our pours across the bar before getting an order from the bar back for the large group that had arrived shortly before. A wealthy Taiwanese man who we've been told always travels with a posse and has recently become a regular customer.

"It's ok if there's one of these guys but I don't want two in here. I don't want arguments over who is the bigger man, you know?" he puffs up his chest in slight mockery before lining up a row of glasses and taking out what looks like two glass vases. Next a small torch and a tool I don't recognize with a hose attached.

He pours alcohol into the vases, lights something and then fills them with smoke. He caps each for a minute before pouring them into the glasses and bringing them over to the table and then returning farther down the bar to mix more drinks. I regret that we don't speak Japanese or Chinese so can't read the actual menu to find out what this drink is.

We sip our whisky. In one hour I will be thirty and I think that I miss the friends we would be celebrating with if we lived in America but this is still a pretty good way to end my twenties.

We finish our whisky and ask for the check, without having seen the menu, we're not quite sure what we're in for, especially with our pour of whisky and we're shocked when we see the bill.

Every drink was about US$10, including our pour of whisky which seemed incredibly reasonably priced for such unique creations and conversations with a bartender clearly knowledgeable and passionate about his business. At the good speakeasies in Seoul, drinks start at $25 for a classic cocktail and are usually just okay (which is why we never go to them). We were pretty sure that wasn't going to be the situation in Taipei where other cocktails and craft beer we had already had was priced like New York, but we weren't expecting as low as ten dollars. It's probably a good thing we don't live in Taipei because this would quickly become my favorite bar and I would want to go until we had tried every infusion and distillation, not to mention what had to be hundreds of bottles of hard to find whiskies.

We pay our bill and make our way back to the subway, hoping for the last train.

Wa Shu is located at 忠孝東路四段101巷39號, Taipei, 106, Taiwan (No. 39, Lane 101, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Rd, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106) for more information check foursquare, their facebook or their website (not in English)

Captivating Kansai: Yamazaki Distillery Tour and Tasting

Hakushu 12 year (smoky) Hakushu 12 year (sherry cask) Hakushu 18 year. Yamazaki Distillery between Kyoto and Osaka, Japan.

With a lot of our friends having already taken advantage of the cheap Peach flights between Seoul and Kansai, there was A LOT we were excited about for our trip to Osaka and Kyoto, but I'm not sure there was anything we were more excited about then the tour of the Yamazaki Distillery.

Dan and I are both mostly bourbon drinkers but we're still pretty big fans of Japanese whisky. Sweet and smoky, its flavor and price point tend to be a middle ground between bourbon and scotch. For a long time, both 12 year Yamazaki and Hibiki could be purchased at the same price as some more expensive bourbons but was about twice as smooth and would leave you with half the hangover. Unfortunately, all us whisky revival, Peggy Olsen and Don Draper emulating, millenials seemed to figure that out at the same time and, for the moment, we have literally drunk Japan out of whisky. Or at least, affordable whisky with an age distinction. Don't worry, the new no-age Yamazaki is still pretty great, so if you go on a tour and decide you just can't get enough of Japanese whisky, you'll still be ok.

Whisky Library, Yamazaki Distillery

When we went you had to make a reservation for the tour but it was free but starting in January 2016 you can make reservations for the museum, whisky library and bar part of the facilities for free but it costs JPY 1,000 for the tour. For free, we got the new no-age Yamazaki and the regular yellow label Suntory whisky at the end but it looks like the new tour gives you Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve and an opportunity to taste unblended Yamazaki, so since the price is just over $8.00, it still seems worth it for your first visit.

The museum focuses on the history of Japanese whisky while the tour is a blend between some distillery history and the whisky making process. The tour is given in Japanese but with free audioguides available in a number of languages. I'm very rarely a fan of audioguides, and this one was no exception. I zoned out a lot of it. Some sections of the guide were more interesting than others, but mostly I enjoyed the walk through the facilities.

The room with all the aging barrels is maybe the most delicious smelling room I've been in in my life, and I'm a professional baker, so I'm pretty much an expert on delicious smelling rooms. Woody, sweet, yeasty, boozy. I swear, if you spent enough time in there, you'd get drunk from just breathing. Maybe we were a bit tipsy, because at least all the other American tourists on the tour were running around with huge giddy smiles on their faces, shouting and posing each time they found an older barrel.

At the end of the tour we were shuffled into a huge cafeteria sort of room where we lined up for highballs made with Yamazaki and then were given snacks designed specifically to pair with the whisky. For our next two free tastings we were allowed Suntory as a highball, neat or on the rocks. I'm a pretty big fan of Suntory highballs but I wish we had been offered the Yamazaki neat instead. After that, we were of course guided to the gift shop where the effects of the whisky shortage became quite apparent. Each guest is only allowed to purchase one bottle and the only bottles with age distinction were the Hibiki 12 year and some tiny sippers of Yamazaki (that don't count as your one bottle allowance). Disappointingly, while there was plenty of types of Jim Beam, there wasn't any Hakushu (Beam Suntory's other Japanese distillery, and makers of my favorite purse whisky bottles). You can also buy unblended bottles, like the ones in the picture of the library, for cheap which seems pretty cool but could also seem like you could end up with something not that great so with our one bottle each limit, we went with whisky we knew we'd like.

Hibiki 17 (sherry cask) Hibiki 17 (Mizunara Cask) Hibiki 17 (smoky) Yamazaki Distillery between Kyoto and Osaka, Japan

The real highlight of the experience is the tasting bar by the whisky library. There is a giant overwhelming menu of all sorts of distillery only pours along with some more easily found options if you're not feeling too adventurous. The Jim Beam offerings cost as low as JPY 100 per pour (yep, $.85) and the Suntory offering are mostly around JPY 300 ($2.50) though you can spend significantly more. If it's cold, there are seats inside, but I recommend sitting outside since the distillery ground are quite nice and if you go on one of the later tours, you might catch a glimpse of the sunset.

We decided to build our own flight of Hakushu for the first round and went with a Sherry Cask Hakushu 12 year, a Smoky Hakushu 12 year and the Hakushu 18. The smoky was not very sweet and definitely would appeal more for scotch drinkers. Dan let me drink most of it after having a taste and declaring it "interesting but not for me". The sherry cask had more depth with complex hints of fruit and spice while the 18 year was spicy, a bit sweet and so smooth I could drink it all day like water.

Our second round we went with a smoky Hibiki 17 year, sherry cask 17 year and a mizunara cask 17 year (JPY 1,200/US$9.86). The Yamazaki Mizunaras have won awards the last few years, but I think were sold out, so I was pretty excited that Dan decided to get the Hibiki Mizunara. The older smoky Hibiki was definitely a bit smoother than the younger Hakushu but way too much for Dan. Smoky is all for me. Again, the sherry cask added a depth of flavor but the clear stand out was the Mizunara. I'm not sure I can even describe it accurately from one tasting, there was so much flavor complexity. Since it's distillery only, I'm just going to tell you to get yourself there and make sure it's in your line up.

I would've loved to do another flight but our day had started off behind schedule due to me making sure that a coffee shop would be open early but not making sure it would be open that day... and after making new breakfast plans and still visiting Fushimi Inari in the morning, we arrived at the distillery without having lunch. So unfortunately, we decided it was probably a better move to find some convenience store snacks and get back on the train to head towards food. Don't make the same mistake we did, eat before you go so that you can try as much whisky as possible and still feel capable of getting yourself back on the train to Kyoto or Osaka, there aren't any snacks at the bar.

The Yamazaki Distillery is located between Osaka and Kyoto at 5 Chome-2-1 Yamazaki Shimamoto-chō, Mishima-gun, Ōsaka-fu and you can find more about there hours and scheduling a tour on their website.