Where Tokyo is expanse, towers, lights and endless depth, Kyoto is the stillness of gardens and temples, bearing a silence unlike anywhere else. It manifests the charm of an ancient village, shockingly intact, yet with the range of a mid-size city (my coverage on Kyoto dining, coffee and food here).
While the Kyoto cocktail scene is tiny compared to the endless wealth of Tokyo, a couple experiences in particular, are among the best I’ve had anywhere in the world, including the world’s best Calvados and the best sake bar.
Bar Calvador is the mind-blower that no spirits aficionado should miss. Purportedly the world’s biggest Calvados (French apple brandy) collection and at over 300 bottles, that sounds about right, even more than its home country of France and region of Normandy. Hiroyuki Takayama is an official Calvados ambassador and knows everything about the wonderful category of French apple brandy. He collects Baccarat glasses (some 100 years old) and all manner of rare Calvados alongside a strong Scotch collection. Though hidden on the 2nd floor of a non-descript building (look for the sign of an apple) and initially met with skepticism as the only non-Japanese in this tiny, intimate bar once Takayama realized how much we cared about Calvados, he pulled out the works. I tasted bottles from 50 to 80 years old and then he shared the pièce de résistance: a dusty but still fully balanced, elegant pour from an 1869 bottle! One of my greatest tasting experiences anywhere in the world and sure to be of my lifetime.
Standouts: While it was shocking how alive each old Calvados was, still exhibiting vibrant pear and apple notes, there were standouts. I will never forget the 1869 Roger Groult Reserve Ancestrale, musty but bright and crisp. But I was quite wowed by the youthfulness of 1958 Calvados du Pays d’Auge and the must, spice and bass notes of the glorious, 50 year old Pierre Huet Prestige. I tried 7 of his 320 Calvados ranging from 17 years old, 1989 bottled, to 1960s and 50s bottles, 80 years and then the 1869 and merely paid around $100. Again, for spirits aficionados, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to educate oneself on the history of Calvados in one sitting. I dream of returning.
Nokishita Edible Garden
One of the most magical experiences in Kyoto was stumbling across Nokishita Edible Garden just a couple months old back in October when I visited. Merely a window along a narrow, car-less Kyoto road, the young gentleman who runs this bar is doing the kind of thing I long for in my own city, but which permitting and laws will not allow.
Cruise up to a streetside counter and order fresh vegetable juices, blended in front of you or from his small but thoughtful collection of gins (from Caorunn in Scotland to St. George’s gins), a true rarity in Japan. Just as he’s obsessed with gin and has a gin blog he’s trying to stir up Japanese interest in the spirit. He’ll serve you a gin & tonic or straightforward cocktail featuring the gins, which you can stand in the street and drink or sit on chairs, covered in blankets if it’s chilly. NEG is a treasure and a gem.
Bar Rocking Chair
Bar Rocking Chair easily provided the top cocktails of my visit to Kyoto. Owner/bartender Kenji Tsubokura is reserved, gracious and sets a similar tone in the bar with an intimate front room sporting two rocking chairs in front of a fireplace, as well as two rocking chairs near the main bar overlooking an enclosed Japanese garden. With whispers of Gen Yamamoto in Tokyo (but not his creative cocktail tasting menus), their cocktail focus shines in seasonal produce combinations, blessedly not too sweet, showing off the bounty of the region.
Standouts: A lively, tart Sudachi Gimlet (gin based) made with sudachi, a Japanese citrus reminiscent of lime.
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K6 is sadly the worst service I had anywhere in two weeks in Japan, a country where service takes the level of art form. Disinterested and removed, we received little more than cold silence from our bartender, unlike the countless fantastic whisky bars around Tokyo. But, K6 is still well worth it if in Kyoto for over 600 single malts and some Irish, Japanese and American whiskies in addition to all that Scotch. As in Tokyo, it’s easy to get many rarities and no longer produced whiskies for a mere $10-20 a pour or a half pour.
Standouts: That Boutique-y Whisky Co. Single Malt Scotch, bottling number 122/272, distilled by Kilhochman and at 55 proof, was subtle with peat and spice. Closed in the late 1980’s, I drank Linkwood 1985 Scotch from defunct Elgin distillery, 60.8% ABV and all sweet spice. The bottle of The Perfume by Bowmore was fascinating: it was distilled in 1987 and bottled for 3 Rivers Tokyo with a label that looks like Japanese anime circa the 1970’s. Bowmore is long a favorite Islay Scotch of mine though this iteration was a bit too soft for me, it’s floral notes were lovely. I finished strong with very rare (only 800 bottles made) of 1988 Bowmore aged in port casks.
Sent James Club
There are two locations of Sent James Club in Kyoto I went to the Pontocho location, which I heard was the most atmospheric. It is an intimate, dark, candlelit bar where jazz sets the tone and the vibe is blessedly mellow, with an outdoor terrace on the Kamo River. While I missed the owner, Mr. Tanaka, our non-English-speaking bartender took good care of us. Cocktails were straightforward classic cocktails served in typically exquisite Japanese barware though the spirits selection is not of the mind-blowing nature one finds elsewhere. Still, it’s a welcome respite in Kyoto’s narrow alleys. Note the seating charge of 600 yen or 1,000 yen for the terrace.
Café Indépendants is more about the setting than anything, in the basement of the former Mainichi Shimbun Kyoto bureau, it is funky, artsy, eclectic, with peeling walls and exposed brick, a French-meets-Japan aesthetic and a nice offering of Italian amaro (think mainstream: Campari, Aperol, Cynar) and French aperitifs, ideal for pre-dinner cocktails. There’s also an upright piano for impromptu music and a hipster crowd.
Sake Bar Yoramu
Just as Calvador is a must for spirits lovers, Sake Bar Yoramu is a must for sake (aka nihonshu) fans and those who want an education on it’s expansive possibilities. Serious and straightforward, Israeli-born Yoram may not at first glance seem like the obvious sake guru. But he is. He’s been in Kyoto for decades, educating each person who enters his quiet temple of a bar, with a few spare seats (note: cash only, as in much of Japan). There is no English menu but he will guide through a tasting of sakes that could run the gamut from clean and nuanced to funky and sherry-like. Even better, he offers excellent aged sake another experience altogether some over 20 years old. There are a few traditional Japanese and Middle Eastern bites to accompany your sake tastings, if you wish.
Standouts: All sakes I tried were unpasteurized, unfiltered and undiluted. I loved the horseradish, wasbi and pear notes of Muroka Nama Genshu’s 2014 Akikishika Okara Kuchi, or a 2013 sake from the same producer that was full, meaty and reminiscent of awamori or shochu. My favorite was the acidic Kidoizumi Haku Giokko, from the only brewery in Japan that adds live lactic bacilicum and hot water (instead of typical cold water) to their sake. I also tried the same producer at 25 years old it’s nutty, savory, dry, sherry-like. AFS sake (also from Kidoizumi Shuzo Co.) tasted fresh and funky in its 2013 iteration, but a bottle of AFS 1976 was funky, brown, mushroom-like with a bit of acidic/sweet contrast, recalling Madeira, caramelized onions and even beef jus!
Craft beer lovers flock to Tadg McLoughlin’s Tadg’s and for good reason. The changing menus of 23 draft plus bottled beers reflect Japan’s growing craft beer movement in a casual pub-like setting with food. A good spot to get educated and savor Japan’s craft beer.