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Friday, September 29, 2017

Ken's Bar, Shinjuku

If you're staying in Shinjuku and you're looking for a casual corner of Golden Gai (or if you don't want to repeatedly shell out cover charges while bar hopping), Ken's Bar is a snug but easygoing spot to enjoy some new or dusty bourbon.

The Bar

Once upon a time (like, three years ago), Ken's Bar was The Place for Bourbon in that part of Tokyo. But Ken Matsuyama himself has opened a second bar and has now split his stash between the two locations. So be careful about your expectations. You won't find any Very Old Fitzgerald or Pappiez. But you will spot a couple dozen items that have long since vanished from American shelves, plus a few Japan-only Old St. Nick-type of bourbons.

I visited Ken's Bar on my first night in Japan. Jetlag had formed a calcified shell around my cerebrum, so the time of day was nothing more than someone's opinion. But I had a tummy full of noodles and beer, and nowhere to be; a true luxury for a parent.

Ken's sits about four people, but I was the only one there. A very early-90s-looking Pat Methany jazz concert was on the small TV in one corner. Lots of fun empties in another corner. A collection limited Maker's bottles in another.

The gentleman behind the bar didn't look like Ken (yes, I properly cyberstalk). He was very friendly, but it was instantly obvious that we spoke different languages; imagine that. I had yet to shed the smell of airplane, and already I had to put my infantile Japanese to the test. But despite our wide language barrier, the bartender and I spoke for nearly two hours. It was really nice.

He had the line of the night:

I said, "Watashi wa, Michael".

He pointed to a familiar bottle on the shelf and said, "Yamazaki 12 year old," then pointed to himself, "Yamazaki 41 year old."

Three months later and 6500 miles away, I came up with my comeback line, "Then you're worth millions!" I'm slow. And not nearly as funny as I think I am.

Bourbon 1

I was taking it easy on my first night in town because my senses were cloudy. So my first couple of drinky things would stay in familiar territory.

First up was Old Charter 10 year old. Weirdly enough, the next-to-last tasting I'd completed before this trip was Old Charter 8, which was not great. But people on the secondary market keep paying top dollar for the OCs, so I thought I'd try the 10. And the price was right.

If you can embiggen the photo, you'll see things get blurry around the bottom of the bottle. That's more or less an accurate depiction of my acuity at the time.

This was a Frankfort (thus Buffalo Trace) Old Charter, so it wasn't hella dusty. But it was a good drinker, significantly better than the 8, the difference between a C- whiskey and a B- whiskey. It's something you can drink whenever, wherever and however. Moderate oak nestled with moderate corn. Perhaps if the bourbon bust ever happens, Buffalo Trace can bring this back. Maybe?

Bourbon 2

Next up was Old Fitzgerald 1849. I know I just got finished writing about how I don't dig wheated bourbon, but I've always enjoyed Old Fitz 1849. I spent a long time searching this bottle for some clue if this was Stitzel-Weller or Heaven Hill stuff, but a big Japanese import sticker covered up some serious real estate on the back. No matter who made it, I liked it. Another B- bourbon. The sweetness was in check, as was the barrel. It's miles better than current Maker's, and could easily compete with the Old Weller line.

Bourbon 3

Yamazaki-san then set a private barrel in front of me. And I went with it, needing something barrel proof to close out the night. And I wanted a drink I couldn't get anywhere else.

This bourbon's source is officially unnamed but it may be from some Untamed Istanbul (not Constantinople). If that's true, then it's better than any OB whisky I've tried from them. Even better than their dusty stuff. It spent its first six years aging in Kentucky, then the next four years maturing in one of Chichibu's warehouses. It's a 2016 bottling so it may still be available at either of Ken's Bars. Oooh, and I have notes for this one!

The nose is much much fruitier than anything else by its rumored source. Then there's walnuts, almonds, fudge, butterscotch and pie crust. The palate has no bitter oak to it. But it does have lots of anise and green peppercorns. Strawberry Bubble Yum, toffee and a belt of rye. It finishes gently sweet, with some of the nose's fruity stuff, like berries and baked apples with cinnamon.

I'm not sure if I've given a contemporary bourbon an A- type rating on this blog, but this whiskey deserves it. It's fabulous. The fruit content is scrumptious, and surprising. Could this be due to the barrel's four years in Central Japan? A great selection by Matsuyama-san.

Final thoughts

Ken's Bar Shinjuku does have a cover charge, and I honestly don't remember if that includes snacks. But their whiskey prices were great. I think I drank all the above for $30-35 including the cover. I believe Ken is usually at the new bar (which is, I think, in Hacchobori, Chuo) but if he's at the Shinjuku bar, he's known to be an excellent bourbon resource. If Yamazaki-san is slinging drinks instead, please tell him I said hello. He's a great bartender with a lively sense of humor and is very sharp regarding whiskey options. He helped make Ken's Bar the perfect stop for my first night in Japan.

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