Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Staying in Tokyo - The Society & The Park Hotel Tokyo

The Society bar and Park Hotel Tokyo
Japanese whisky is in the now but the fact is it always has been around & for much longer than many seem to think. I have been traveling to Japan for many years & the whisky is something I have always looked forward too. Even though great whisky is made in Japan it has always been somewhat inaccessible in Australia until very recent years. Now we have seen a bit of a golden era in Japanese whisky supply in Australia but even that is starting dry up fast. Japan on the other hand has a thriving bar scene that supports the local product, though finding actual retailers stocking shelves with Japanese whisky by the bottle is very few in comparison in Tokyo. It has been noted to me on several occasions that there is 2 main factors why this is so. Firstly people just don’t have shelf storage in the cities, while secondly eating & drinking out on a daily basis sort of negates the concept of buying for home. This issue of shelf accessibility Makes things rather complicated for the foreign whisky appreciator looking to score a good deal.

Don’t be too alarmed by what I am saying as there are many solutions to solving this problem. One of the best solutions is to simply stay at a hotel that has an awesome bar while being located in a area that can get you to those need to see whisky vendors. Enter the Park Hotel Tokyo with a top shelf bar called The Society. If you are a SMWS (Scotch Malt Whisky Society) Member (as I am), you will know at least something about the few SMWS Bar/Cellars that have been setup around the world. The Society is one of these such bars and one you simply must visit when in Tokyo.

From here I am going to break this post into 3 parts. Each part has a relevance to the rest but needs some detail on their own: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society; Staying In Tokyo - The Park Hotel Tokyo; The Society Bar Tokyo.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

First let us define exactly what SMWS is. Established in Edinburgh in 1983, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a business trading cask strength single barrel whisky to a membership of over 26,000 members world wide. A tasting panel hand selects, then purchases single casks of whisky from all over the world before laying them down to age until they are defined as being ripe for bottling. Each bottling is non-chill filtered and comes from a single cask. Being bottled at cask strength delivers profiles in whiskies never to be seen again and often overlooked as not fitting the profiles of the major brands.

Membership is annual while it is also required to be a valid member in order to purchase the whiskies. Members are distinctly passionate about the SMWS and all share a dream for something unique. Chapters of the SMWS are all over the world with members bars in many major cities. For Australians to get involved in becoming a member it is as simply as signing up membership at the SMWS AU website. Once you a member you will have access to purchase whiskies available in your country. While members are travelling, local & international, instant access is granted to any SMWS Bar or Cellar to purchase whiskies buy the bottle (depending on the location) or draw a few drams at members pricing.

Specifically speaking about SMWS in Japan, the fact of the matter is that SMWS in Japan is the oldest SWMS chapter outside of the UK being started back in 1993. Looking at this history it is no surprise that there is more than a few official sampling bars through out Japan. Though this list is in Japanese, I am sure if you are keen, you will find what you are looking for.

The Park Hotel Tokyo rooms and views

Staying Tokyo - The Park Hotel Tokyo

Secondly let us look at accommodation & locality. Regardless if you are in town for business or pleasure staying in Tokyo can be a bit of drama if you do not know where to go. For any whisky lover The Park Hotel Tokyo will get you what you need and it will deliver you your whisky fix. Every hotel has a bar right? But not every hole has a dedicated whisky bar let alone a dedicated SMWS bar. The Park Hotel Tokyo is a luxury hotel with a focus on traveling international guests. Located in the district of Shiodome, just off the stylish Ginza, your access to Tokyo is a stones throw to the local train & subway stations.

Facilities at the hotel are ultra modern, balanced against the art and nature exhibits throughout. On entry to reception at the 25th floor I was marvelled by the 10 floor high skylight atrium. Banked by floor to ceiling windows opening out for a view of the city, direct onto Tokyo Tower, & on a good day Mt Fuji far off in the distance. Through out the atrium reception a display of Japanese modern art including a 10 story high digital projection exhibits all year long.

The Park Hotel Tokyo hosts a series restaurants, bars, bakeries, and salons. 3 restaurants and The Society bar haunts the 25th floor which also includes: Art Lounge Restaurant (International); tateru yoshino bis (Casual French); Hanasanshou (Japanese Kaiseki cuisine and 50+ types of Sake); The Society bar (Japanese and SMWS whiskies and cocktails). It is without question you will find it hard to eat out when your staying at the Park Hotel Tokyo as the food and service at the bar restaurants is outstanding. In the mornings the Art Lounge turns into a breakfast buffet serving the best of fresh breads, continental, Japanese, and western styles to suite the hungry needs of all. If you stay be sure to get the breakfast package.

The Park Hotel Tokyo Foyer and installation artwork
Situated throughout the 10 top floors the hotel occupies, you will find the rooms are clean, modern, fresh & ultra quiet with evening views of Tokyo that are hard to beat (especially if you have a room with a  view of the stunning Tokyo Tower). I found the rooms to be very well kept & no doubt, if I was to stay in one of the Artists Rooms, I would be overly impressed (maybe next time I will add one of these rooms to my list).

Access from the Park Hotel Tokyo into the city is excellent and one of the main reasons to choose this hotel (apart from The Society bar). Walk to the Ginza for a bit of street life or take the underpass into the train stations for immediate access all around Tokyo. Truly the way to move through the city is via train so shopping for a hotel within walking distance is a must. Looking at locality from a whisky point of view there is too many bars to count as you wander down into the Ginza & surrounding districts. In particular take the journey from the Park Hotel Tokyo for a evening of whisky delights at the Camplbeltown Loch (find out more about it at our mates at Time For Whisky). Easily a 15 min stroll, you can still take a meal and a whisky at the Park Hotel Tokyo, and make it to the Campbelltoun Loch for a night of stunning malt adventures.

Even if you not completely taken by bar hopping, taking a walk proves to always be worth the adventure. One telling adventure of mine on my way back to the hotel. A small wine retailer along the Ginza had a sign out saying wine & sake tastings. Sparking my interest (I love both wine and sake) I stepped in only discovered a small collection of whiskies on the shelf. A bottle of Nikka 17yo Pure Malt lay open for tasting for ¥500 (that is about $5.10 AU). Asking for taste I was expecting 15ml but instead my dram easily topped 100ml. Bargain! Yes I had another but I was getting late for a meeting so 2 drams it was.

Just some of the SMWS bottles tasted over the 3 nights

The Society Bar Tokyo

Lastly let us move onto The Society bar in full order. There is not too many SMWS bars around & certainly not with the wealth of section The Society has on offer. The Society bar is located in the foyer of the Park Hotel Tokyo next to both the Art Lounge & Tateru Yoshino Bis Restaurants. Dark and mysterious on the interior it is still easy to spot the bars location by the opaque white glass door sporting a large SMWS logo.

On entering you will not miss the bar top as a standout feature. U shaped & with a sunken floor, the top itself is under lit, casking a warm amber glow though out the room. As a guess the bar could comfortably seat 15 while 2 corner tables will deliver around another 8 guests at a squeeze. If your keen for a cigar you will also find someone usually partaking in one of the corner tables.

Taking a seat at the bar is a little like a secret handshake all SMWS members know. Flash your members card & a menu of SMWS bottling as long as your arm appears. Not that you need to know this menu to see how many bottles are open for tasting either. Simply turn around to discover a cryogenic crypt of deathly hallowed drams lying instate just waiting to be awakened.

Koji Nammoku mixing up cocktails
Through the 3 nights stay I had at the Park Hotel Tokyo I spent a good deal of time as a bar fly at The Society. In that time I got to know bar manager Koji Nammoku while seeing in detail how the bar operated on any given night. Koji is an amazing barkeep with an intimate knowledge of every SMWS bottling open at the bar. Of course being a SMWS member himself it is not surprising his passion in whisky surrounds the brand. Koji is a young 27yo and has been managing The Society bar for 3 years at the time of this interview Jan 2015. He noted very passionately that he always wanted to be in the bar scene ever since his school days. Koji discovered the virtues of SMWS though friends & has been a SMWS member for 8 years (well before working at The Society bar). Koji oversees what’s on & behind the bar as well as bar service. Be sure to order something with ice spot you can enjoy his skills in iceball chipping. Nominating for a seasonal cocktail menu, it is Japanese whisky appearing as the core ingredient for general guests as a way to balance out against the flavour profiles of the SMWS bottling.

Over the time I sat at the bar Koji served some fantastic SMWS drams in my direction including the following wish I kept record of:

1.181 Vintage Car In A Rose-Garden
66.51 Hospitals On Guy Fawkes’ Night
121.65 A Well-Oiled Baseball Glove
132.5 Sweet And Darkly Beguiling
3.225 Galleon Attacked By Pirates
31.28 Going Nuts In A Rugby Club Changing Room

Iceball chipping with Koji. I took too many photos and his hands began to freeze.
Not to let just the SMWS bottling shine, Koji had his moment displaying his skills making a me both a Bamboo Leaf Martini & a deliciously fresh Forest Highball.

To cap off a fun filled couple of days Koji completed the stay with a fantastic ice chipping display to fashion a hand made iceball. What a show! When SMWS bottling's are unique from one to next next it needs to be recognised Koji displayed an intimate knowledge of each an every bottle opened for tasting. People such as Koji & his staff that make bars like The Society a destination when visiting Tokyo.

David Croll of Whisk-e
Before closing off I also had the privilege of speaking with David Croll of Whisk-e Limited, the current custodians of SMWS in Japan. Whisk-e has been managing the SMWS Japan since 2001

David had specifically mentioned if anyone is traveling to pan and in Kyoto tp be sure to look up Bar Keller. "The owner (Bar Keller) is a very long-standing member and one of, if not the, key man in the whisky market in Kyoto" as David quotes. David goes on to comment about Bar Keller saying "It's a very different type of welcome, very Kyoto. But Society members won't be disappointed"​. For more information on Bar Keller check out Nonjatta.com.

In speaking about the local market approach of the SMWS Japan David commented "We just try to offer alternative ways to enjoy Society whiskies whilst not looking to deter the hardcore fan. By that I mean tastings such as Whisky & Sushi, Whisky & Cigars, Whisky & Craft Beer, etc. We also did a blending once at the top of Mt Fuji with Dave Broom."

I also asked David about the Highball trend many have become fascinated with here in Australia and why has it become so popular in Japan. David commented "The highball crowd are largely a new whisky audience, rather than the traditional drinkers. There's been some flow into mainstream whiskies, although largely into entry level products. However this reinvigoration of what had been in danger of becoming a bit of a staid scene has been very good for the market I believe".

A big thanks to Koji Nammoku and The Society bar, David of Whisk-e, and Mitsuru Narasawa of Park Hotel Tokyo. Your hospitality was greatly appreciated and your time welcomed.

The Baron