Depending on the day, if you were to ask me what my favorite bar in the world is, there’s a good chance I’d answer Bar Benfiddich in Tokyo.
Before last year I’d never been to Japan. But after two relatively last minute, and unexpected trips I ended up in Tokyo twice in the same year.
And both times, Bar Benfiddich was one of the absolute highlights.
The first trip was with my good friends John and Scott. Scott’s wife was having a baby a couple months later, and so when a group of us were on a hike a month prior we started talking about taking a guys trip to celebrate.
The only criteria was that it be a place we could all get to on Delta miles, and would be a decent place to visit for a week.
Oh, and it was a bonus if we could get some skiing in.
Switzerland was our first choice, but was knocked out for logistical reasons.
Singapore was next, but after my wife Tate complained that she wanted to go there with me (more on that later), we ruled it out.
We finally realized we could get to Tokyo pretty easily, do a few nights there, and then pop up to Niseko for some skiing.
It ended up being one of the best trips I’ve ever taken, despite this happening:
…and Benfiddich was one of the absolute highlights on an epic trip.
My friends knew about my bar quest, and fortunately were also the purveyors of fine spirits and cocktails, so they weren’t put off when I told them we had 6 bars I wanted to visit in the two nights we had in Tokyo.
Night one was a drunken stumble through Bar High Five, Bar Orchard Ginza, a random bar on the 7th floor of a random building that was not what we were expecting, Mori Bar, and Star Bar.
The next night was an epic-ly disappointing old fashioned at New York Bar at the top of the Park Hyatt (which I’ll revisit in another post, as my second experience there was even worse), followed by close to three hours of phenomenal drinking at Benfiddich.
We walked over from the Park Hyatt, and probably spent 20 minutes walking in circles trying to find it.
You’d have no idea it was there, were it not for this little sticker on a call box outside the building:
One of the most interesting parts of Tokyo are the sheer number of bars hidden in what appear to be (and often are) run-of-the-mill apartment buildings.
You hop in a descriptor elevator, end up in a non-descript hallway, and hope you’re in the right spot.
Many times on both of my trips to Japan, we were not.
Fortunately, once we found Benfiddich the giant wooden door let us know we were in the right place.
When you open it up, you’re whisked away into another land. A small bar that to this day is unlike any other bar I’ve visited.
It feels oddly reminiscent of a journey to Hogwarts Castle, as everything is made of wood, and the view behind the bar is less about the spirits, and more dominated by the random herbs, tinctures, spices, and other vials of ingredients nestled back there.
On this first trip, we got there just after opening and snagged three seats right at the center of the bar – which is exactly where you want to be at Benfiddich as half of the experience is talking with the bartender and watching the show of the drinks.
Hiroyasu Kayama, like many Japanese bartenders, is a true master of his craft. And is on my short list of most impressive bartenders I’ve ever met.
His creations are truly unique and are unlike any cocktails I’ve experienced anywhere else.
There are no menus at Benfiddich, he simply has a conversation with you about what you like and what type of drink you’d prefer.
As I learned on my second trip with Tate (who usually favors rum or tequila drinks), he tends to focus on whiskey and gin-based cocktails, but trust me when I say, he can make something for everyone.
As is customary for me when I’m at a bar with no menu, or simply want to test the bartender, I asked him to make me his take on an old-fashioned.
“Ok, one special old-fashioned. It’s a spice old fashioned.”
Little did I know how truly special this would be.
I sat there for the next 5 minutes as I watched him take out a plethora of spices, and use a special grinder that had a wheel with a handle on each side. He took his time with every part of the drink, and by the time he was done, I not only had a new respect for how he approached his cocktails, but I was blown away by how good it was.
One of the most fascinating parts of an experience at Benfiddich is how tightly orchestrated the whole drink-making experience is.
The bartender stands in the center of the bar under a single light, while 2 or 3 different barbacks gather ingredients and prepare things for him.
In the exact right instant, without missing a beat, when he needs a bottle or ingredient, he holds out his hand, the item is given to him, and he continues making the drink.
It’s so well done, and so in sync, you wonder how long it took them to develop that kind of chemistry.
And this was just the beginning.
In one of my favorite cocktail experiences I’ve had, my friend John asked for one of his favorite variations of a negroni.
Mr. Kayama got a glint in his eye and a slight smirk.
He started grabbing bottles that looked, old.
Old Campari. Old vermouth. Old benedictine.
As he began crafting this drink he turns to John and with a laugh says “Ha, for you, expensive cocktail.”
It was a vintage take on a negroni with ingredients used from the 1960s.
It can be a little scary being at Benfiddich and having no idea how much the drinks he’s making are going to cost.
For that negroni, we expected some super scary astronomical price tag.
I believe it came in around $28 US. Expensive, sure, but for what it was? It felt like a steal. Compare this to the 1940s vintage negroni at Atlas in Singapore which hits you at right around $150 US, and you might as well order a round of em!
My second experience with Tate we found the same. We had 5 cocktails between the two of us, and the bill was right around $100. So yeah $20 per drink is steep, but for the experience, quality, and stories that come out of it? It truly feels like a bargain.
I could go on and on about the unique cocktails I tasted on my two visits there, but possibly the most impressive was the “Fresh Campari” cocktail.
No, he doesn’t just snag a bottle of Campari off the shelf and pour it over
No, no, that would be far too pedestrian.
For this cocktail, he literally makes his own version of Campari in front of you.
It was the last drink of my most recent trip, and so I asked for something special. As someone who loves Campari, to be hit with this? It was impressive.
So what does it look like to make your own Campari?
Well for starters, I’d mentioned all of those spices and and items on the back of the bar. Well, he took out 13 of them (I counted), and placed them on the bar.
Here they are:
- Grapefruit Juice
- Tonic water
- Angelica Root
- Calamus Root
- Swertia Japonica
- Licorice Powder
- Cinnamon Powder
- Orange Peel
- Coriander Seed
He then proceeded to combine them all together to create his own version of Campari.
Watch this video, it not only shows you how he makes this cocktail, but gives you an excellent idea of the time that goes into crafting each drink:
The whole experience was unreal, and the cocktail was served over one cube and tasted excellent. It’s not like it was a dead ringer for Campari, it tasted like a slightly more herbal and spicy version of it, but it was remarkably close given the fact I just watched him do it in front of me.
Final Thoughts on Bar Benfiddich in Tokyo, Japan
It’s not hard to see why Benfiddich is one of my favorite bars in the world. The drinks are unique, the atmosphere is unique, Mr. Kayama is hilarious, and amazing to watch, and you’ll taste things you’ll truly never experience anywhere else in the world.
In my mind, that is the epitome of a world class bar, and it’s one spot I’ll never miss when on a trip to Tokyo.
How the whole place feels like an orchestrated dance