Saturday, April 30, 2016

Whiskey Bar Etiquette

Specialty whiskey bars, along with coffee shops, are one of my favorite things about Tokyo. The collections (and the bartenders really do consider the bottles behind the bar to be collections) are incredible and the atmosphere intimate. Unfortunately, whiskey bars can seem inaccessible to short-term visitors to Japan.  A minimum level of cultural fluency, however, can make going to whiskey bars in Japan much more fun. It is with this in mind that I've written this short guide.

Party Size

Many of the best and most interesting whiskey bars in Tokyo are small, 12 seats-at-a-counter affairs. If there isn't room for the number of people in your party, the bartender will most likely indicate that the bar is full by crossing his arms or his left and right index fingers to make an "X." Often, waiting for a seat to become available is not permitted. Therefore, its best to keep your party size small. I've had the best luck with parties of two; it can sometimes be difficult with parties of four. 


When entering a whiskey bar, wait in the entryway until you are able to catch the bartenders eye and then indicate the number of people in your party by holding up your fingers. If there is room, you will shortly be directed to a seat. If there isn't, you will most likely be asked to leave (see above).

Selecting Your Whiskey

At most serious whiskey bars, there is not a menu. Bars will often have hundreds of whiskeys and keeping a menu up to date isn't deemed worthwhile. 

There are essentially two choices when it comes to selecting a whiskey: requesting a specific bottle or asking for a recommendation. Normally, bottles are stacked on the shelf two or three deep, and so only half or one-third of a collection is visible. This can make requesting a specific bottle difficult, especially considering that lots of the whiskey is likely to be decades-old bottlings with unfamiliar labels. 

Asking for a recommendation, however, can be similarly fraught since most bartenders do not speak English. If you are able to ask for a recommendation, it's best to describe the general characteristics of the types of whiskey you like (e.g., extra-aged whiskey, high-proof whiskey, etc.). The bartender will then place several bottles in front of you from which to choose, The easiest method is simply to point at the bottle you want.

When requesting a specific bottle or when selecting from the bottles recommended by the bartender, it is perfecting acceptable to inquire about the cost. Simply point to the bottle and ask "ikura?"

Another thing to keep in mind when selecting a whiskey is the fill level of the bottle and how long it is likely to have been open. Oxidation can make the flavor of whiskies that have been open a long time rather flat. 


Once you've selected your whiskey, the bartender's next question will most likely be how you would like it served. There are essentially three possibilities: neat, on the rocks and with soda. 

If you would like the whiskey served neat, ask for it "straight." It will mostly likely be served to you in a shot glass, but it is not expected that you drink it as a shot. 

If you would like the whiskey served on the rocks, ask for "rocks." It will mostly likely be served in an old fashioned glass with a huge spherical or hand cut piece of ice. 

If you would like the whiskey mixed with soda water, ask for a "highball." Most of the whiskey consumed in Japan is consumed as a highball. If you are going to have a highball, I would recommend Suntory Kakubin or Hibiki. 

Servring MethodWord to OrderJapanese Transliteration
On the RocksRockRokku
With SodaHighballHaiboru

The bartender will then make your drink and place it in front of you along with the bottle. Don't worry, you haven't ordered the whole bottle. Feel free inspect the bottle or take a picture. The pour is likely to be very small, less than 1.5 oz. 

Paying Your Tab

When you're finished the easiest way to ask for the check is to get the bartenders attention and cross your left and right index fingers to make an "X." The bartender will then bring you a "receipt," which will mostly likely simply be an amount written on a small sheet of paper. It is unlikely to be itemized. Generally, you can pay the tab at your seat. Tipping is not required or encouraged. 

No comments:

Post a Comment