...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Bar Argyll - Shinjuku, Tokyo

I went to Bar Argyll having reading positive reviews by more seasoned Japanese bar-goers like Chris Bunting, the Nonjatta folks and David Broom. But I wound up being underwhelmed by my experience there. Perhaps my existing great bar experiences in Japan set up unrealistic expectations. Yet, I can name at least six better Tokyo spots just off the top of my head right now (and my memory sucks). Also despite what its whiskybase entry says, I sincerely doubt they have 100+ whiskies. It's possible the bar had its glory days, but they have passed. As it is in 2017, the place is not without its charms, but it's also not a must see for whisky fans.

Its wood design is lovely, but I have no photos of it because it was the darkest bar I've ever been in (and I've been to MANY underlit joints in LA). I have no idea what the bartender's name was because his card doesn't list it and he never offered a word in either English or Japanese. He spent the entirety of two hours hacking away at ice cubes. The results were beautiful, but for two hours? It took me those two hours to consume all of three pours while there because the icetender wouldn't make eye contact with me.

Bar Argyll also had a grand total of three whiskies from Argyll. Springbank 10yo, 12yo CS and one Hazelburn. Perhaps it would have been better named Bar Spey.

There were four other customers during my visit, a pair of whom appeared to be on a date. Either things were going very well or very poorly for those two. The young woman went through at least seven cigarettes in the first hour. Because of that smoke, I'm going to give grade ranges to these whiskies rather than assigning a specific score.

Not much on the shelf was really calling out to me, plus it was difficult to see what was available. But I did see some Flora & Faunas, so I decided to start the session with an F&F I'd never tried.

Blair Athol 12 year old Flora & Fauna - 2012 bottling - 43%abv

Color - Very dark gold, though again the bar was hella dark
Nose - Almonds and cashews. Whole wheat bread and a simple constant malty note.
Palate - A very pleasant creamy, buttery flavor. A little bit of raisins, a little bit of heat. Blendy, though more Johnnie Walker than Bell's (which utilizes Blair Athol). It picks up the nose's good nutty note with time.
Finish - Lightly sweet. Cracked pepper, butter and cashews.

Commentary:  A simple drink with no technical issues. Though there are sherry casks in the mix they stay mellow, lending mostly nutty notes. It's a good transitional whisky, for those who are moving from blends to single malts — if people are still doing that — and it certainly beats the heck out of the Singleton series in that part of the market. In fact, if I could find a bottle of it for less than $50, I'd consider getting it. (There were probably many such bottles in Japan.)
Rating: B-/B (81-84)

Ardmore 15 year old 2001 Cooper's Choice - bourbon hogshead - 51.5%abv

Color - 5 beer piss. Yay!
Nose - It's almost entirely cereal grains, with hints of stone fruits and charred meat. Nude stuff.
Palate - It leads with a substantial almost-Islay-level of peat. Moderate sweets and salt. Sweet basil. A mint leaf note couples nicely with the peat. After 20+ minutes in the glass it goes full mezcal.
Finish - Some bright bitterness. A little heat, salt and peat.

Commentary: I'd almost bought a bottle of this whisky blindly on a few occasions (because Ardmore), but I'm glad I didn't. It's not bad whisky, but damn if it ain't worth $90-$110. That hogshead must have been a fourth fill because it barely did its job. The result is a whisky reminiscent of all those baby (4-8 year old) indie Ardmores that are barely selling right now. Its big peat and oak-free nature is good, to a point. And that point may be at the finish where it flops.
Rating: B- (80-82)

So here's Bar Argyll's only Argyll-produced single malt that one can't buy all over the whisky drinking world. The Maltman can't legally use the name Hazelburn, so they go with the enigmatic "Hazelgrove".

Hazelgrove 16 year old 2000 The Maltman - cask 11078 - PX finish - 47.1%abv

Color - Dark gold
Nose - Luckily the PX hasn't totally taken over the nose. There's a good mint and nut combo. Toffee and cherries. Despite what the back label says, we're a long way from Campbeltown.
Palate - Here's the PX. Raisins in agave nectar. Grape jam. Lemon candy and ginger candy. It gets sweeter with time, though a bitterness lingers in the back.
Finish - The PX continues. There are prunes and currants. Maple syrup, salt and apple butter.

Commentary: This is both curious and forgettable. It has a super low ABV for a 16yo whisky, which makes me think the original cask or the PX cask had something odd going on. Probably the original cask, because the PX totally dominates whatever existed before the finishing. Why else would you give the Glenmorangie treatment to a Springbank product? Ultimately, it's not crap, but it's interchangeable with any other generic PX-finished single malt. And that's sinning against Argyll.
Rating: C/C+ (76-79)

The fact that I was able to try three single malts that are unavailable in the United States kept this experience from being completely disappointing. But between the unwelcoming atmosphere and service, and the surprisingly lackluster selection, I left wishing I'd tried out one of the several other bars recommended to me by you good readers. As I mentioned at the start, whisky geeks can skip this spot, especially when pressed for time.


  1. As you noticed, I don't get around to the whisky bars here too much; usually overpriced, too much style over substance (a recurring theme here), and just not fun for hanging out. Of course, I never hit the town on a whisky-tasting mission anyway, and embarrassingly enough (as the owner of a small bar that features mostly whisky), not as enthusiastic about the stuff as I was. Well, OK, the enthusiasm is still there, but the willingness to put quantity before quality makes me a wal-mart shopper in the world of Bloomingdales whisky establishments.

    1. Hey! Yes, presentation is seems to be valued over the product at times in your particular corner of the ocean. I feel more enthusiasm about the experience than about buying bottles, which explains why I spent so much more ¥¥¥ at bars than on the stuff I brought back home.

      Also, I have some Ikebukuro posts coming up. Feel free to publicly correct my memory upon their posting...