...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Bar Cordon Noir is the bar of my dreams

I used to have a whisky fantasy of walking into that bar or that store that no one else had found and time had forgotten.  The shelves would be stacked full of old whiskies I'd never even heard of and with prices that were from before the "boom".  Having dusty-hunted between 100 and 200 stores in neighborhoods forgotten by the rest of society, I have ended the hope of ever finding that impossible store.  And, in reality, bars are even worse.  Those who have the product tend to think they can charge a great premium for the product.  And there are probably less than a handful of bars in California that have an interesting inventory.  I had no expectations of finding anything worthy of hyperbole when I went to Japan.  Bar Shot Zoetrope was a wonderful experience, and definitely the go-to Japanese whisky bar in Tokyo (and possibly the world), but I knew in general what I was going to find there.  I barely knew that Bar Cordon Noir even existed.  No one has written about it online.  Those who know have said nothing.  And now I'm going to spoil it.
Cordon Noir was not the first whisky bar I was going hit while in Kyoto.  Nor was I going to wait until the last night to search it out.  But, as I wrote on Friday, my trip was a physical challenge and left me craving rest rather than drink.  There were visits to regular bars to have a beer and a survey of the shelves during the day, but only at establishments that appeared on my path.  Night after night went by until I was left with the final one.

Though the sign clearly states that Bar Cordon Noir is on the third floor, the exterior stairs lead to an unmarked door underneath blackened windows.  The second floor business is also a bar, a bar that proudly serves Suntory products.  So I went back down to the elevator in front of the small building and took it to the third floor.  Sure enough, it opened to Cordon Noir's front door.  And at 7:30 I entered.

I have been to a number of bars that claim to have 200, 300, or 500 whiskies.  Yet upon arrival I always discover that they have, at most, a quarter of their claim.  Never have I stood in a bar that made good on an outrageous inventory statement.  Until now.

If you take a look at my terrible panoramic photo at the top, you'll see the shelves from end to end.  You may think, that doesn't look like 800 whiskies.  Well, dear reader, that is because those bottles are stacked three deep.  Yes, for every bottle you see, there are two completely different whiskies behind it.  And nearly none of the 800 whiskies are new releases, as almost everything on the shelves was bottled during previous decades.

The bar was empty of people, save for a man in a black vest wiping a glass (of course!).  He was looking at me, smiling, probably seeing me whispering religious declarations to myself.  His name is Makoto Ono, the manager and bartender of Bar Cordon Noir.  All I could say aloud was, "So much whisky."  He looked at the shelves and confirmed my statement.

A dozen old black Cadenhead dumpies over here.  Four, maybe five, Ladyburns over there.  Allied-era Glendronachs.  Independent Taliskers.  For some reason, I mentioned old Glenlivet; he put five bottles of 'Livet from the early '70s in front of me.  Late-sixties Longmorn?  Here are four.  How about Ardmore?  Four from the '70s.  Every label was old, but pristine.

Oh my god, I had to focus.  Don't look at the old bourbons.  Don't look at the blends.  Must ignore the Japanese whisky for now.  Have to make a plan.  Okay, I'll pick my favorite distilleries...

For a moment, I couldn't name a single one.  Okay, Ardmore.  There's one.  Old Caperdonich, another.  He brought down a '68.  I spied the 1980s version of Glenlivet that I'd tried a few months earlier.  I knew it was tasty and a good way to test the palate.  That could be my starter.  Then I'd go to the Caperdonich.  Then maybe the Ardmore?  I love Ardmore.  But.  I saw a 1974 Clynelish on the shelf, and I knew that the next time I'd be drinking 1970s Clynelish would be 40 years from now in the bullshit stories I'd tell about what we used to drink.  The '74 Clynelish would bat third.  What would hit cleanup?  My thoughts were blank, simple neural connections weren't occurring and I didn't have an internet connection to assist.  The shelves, what's on the shelves.  Of course.  Springbank.  He brought out a '72 Chieftains and a '69 Signatory.  I went with the Chieftains as it the whisky told tales of an old ruby-colored sherry butt existence.

My mates for the evening
During my stay, I watched Ono-san elegantly build cocktails for another customer, carefully pour a 1991-bottled Blanton's over a massive block of ice, and climb the shelves to pluck bottles from their exact hidden places.  He was an artist, exacting and precise, but never ostentatious.  And he knew every price off the top of his head.  As for those prices?  The four good pours listed below cost in total about the same price as, yes, two glasses of Johnnie Walker Blue Label at a Los Angeles bar.

1.  Glenlivet 12 year old, bottled in the 1980s
2.  Caperdonich 36 year old 1968 Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur's Choice (46% abv version)
3.  Clynelish 1974 Modern Masters
4.  Springbank 30 year old 1972 Chieftain's

As I took that picture of the four bottles, my mind cleared and my eyes saw the moment.  This was really happening and it might never happen again, so I made sure to proceed carefully and document it fully.  There were four drams.  Three hours.  At least twelve glasses of water.

Starting tomorrow and ending Friday, I will post a review of each of these whiskies.  Four posts in four days.


  1. Nirvana at the end of an elevator.

    1. And there are so many small elevators leading to little bars in both cities I visited.

  2. What a nice reason to travel to Japan :D
    Great stuff there as it seems and you can't complain if they have old Cadenhead Dumpies open to dram them glas by glas...

    1. If (or when) I return, I'd do one night with just whatever old dumpies he still has. Then I'd do another night with other things I missed. And then another night. And then another...