But while the American cocktail scene has seen a relatively recent revival, the Japanese cocktail world has maintained an unwavering path of excellence, even during the darker ages of American bartending — in fact, one of the pioneers of the new era of American cocktails, the late Sasha Petraske, took much of his inspiration from Japanese bartending. Fortunately for the budding cocktail maven, it’s relatively easy to imbibe that history simply by hitting some of Tokyo’s best cocktail bars, many of which neatly preserve a moment in time. What follows is one suggested agenda that starts with a classic establishment and progresses toward bars at the vanguard of cocktail culture.
With seating fees (similar to a cover charge) factored in, Tokyo’s high-end cocktails can cost up to $30 a drink, so you might want to save these outings for special occasions. Reservations are a good idea if the bar accepts them, but you shouldn’t have trouble getting a seat at any of these spots. Basic English is widely spoken at most high-end establishments — just be cordial and patient when making requests.
The Retro Stalwart: Tender
5F, 6-5-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Tender will feel hauntingly familiar to anyone who managed to get a drink at the bar in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons restaurant before it closed. After taking an elevator up to the fifth floor of an anonymous building in Ginza, you'll find yourself in a pointedly mid-century-style room, which is well-lit, with lots of soft oranges and blues in the decor. Staffed by bartenders in starched white coats, Tender is a perfect snapshot of an earlier era of fancy cocktails. It focuses on classics, sours in particular, with every detail tightly coordinated — and bartender-owner Kazuo Ueda's legendary "hard shake" technique is hypnotic to witness in person. The drink list — with nearly as much emphasis on color as taste — will feel slightly retro to a drinker well-versed in the repertoire of pre-Prohibition and modern classics, but this isn't a bad thing; it just makes Tender a beautiful period piece.
Details: Tender’s service is practically the platonic ideal, and their seating fee policy is considerably clearer than most (¥1,800, plus a 10 percent service charge), so two drinks will run nearly ¥6,000. You’ll also want to dress in something a little fancier than jeans and a t-shirt.
Other slightly retro options: Star Bar Ginza: B1F 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; Mori Bar: 10F 6-5-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; Radio Bar: 3-10-34 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; Bar Rage: 3F 7-13-13 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo
The Modern Standard: Bar High Five
BF 5-4-15 Ginza Chuo-Ku, Tokyo
Opened by Hidetsugu Ueno, a longtime employee of the classic Ginza establishment Star Bar, High Five feels firmly situated within the modern cocktail era. There's no menu, so be prepared to answer a few questions about your drink preferences after you’ve descended into the dark, sleek space. There's plenty to be excited about in High Five's wide-ranging selection of bottles, which would put many of the craft cocktail bars in the U.S. to shame — on a recent visit, a mixed group of both novice and experienced fancy cocktail drinkers with wildly diverse palates all walked away totally happy with their drinks. The experience is reminiscent of the old Milk & Honey, even while somehow feeling unique to Tokyo.
Details: This is one of the more expensive cocktail bars around: Four people with one drink each ran nearly ¥14,000 total, including the seating fee.
The Must-Visit: Bar Ben Fiddich
9F, 1−13−7 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
If you’re going to visit only one fancy cocktail bar in Tokyo, it should probably be Bar Ben Fiddich. Feeling as much like a hobbit hole as a bar, the back wall is lined with an amaro-heavy selection of vintage spirits and jars of macerating ingredients, along a hearty collection of the usual bottles. Dotting the bar are homegrown herbs, botanicals, and spices that find their way into many of the drinks, like one of bartender Hiroyasu Kayama’s better-known signatures: a "fresh" version of Campari, made to order. (The word "apothecary" comes up frequently in descriptions of the bar.) Cocktails are produced on the fly — there’s no menu — but Kayama’s unconventional approach to ingredients and technique, directed by a highly tuned palate, makes Ben Fiddich one of Tokyo's most remarkable drinking experiences.
Details: Price-wise, two people with two drinks each ran to about ¥ 9,000.
The Whoa: Gen Yamamoto
1-6-4 Azabujuban, Minato-ku, Tokyo
It feels inaccurate to classify Gen Yamamoto as merely a cocktail bar; it’s more like an art project, or perhaps an omakase restaurant that happens to only serve beverages. There is one man, one counter, one set menu of four or six drinks. (You should get six.) Dressed in a neat white jacket, Yamamoto presides over his small cube of a room with a deep counter cut from a single tree. As spare as the space, most of the drinks are composed of little more than a carefully selected spirit, juice from seasonal produce sourced directly from farmers by Yamamoto, and a flavoring agent or two. A visit in December, for instance, saw a local sweet potato shōchū mixed with juice from a pear that had been aged for one month after harvesting; a warm drink of Yamazaki whiskey paired with Japanese plum; and "a local barley spirit" served with green apple juice and sencha dust. It could be argued by the spoilsport that Yamamoto's drinks aren't, strictly speaking, cocktails. But every drink contained a glimmer of revelation in its urgent simplicity.
Details: You’ll need to call to make a reservation — English is fine, and Yamamoto, who answers the phone himself, prefers if customers don’t go through a hotel concierge. Since there are only eight seats, be open to arriving as early as 3 p.m. You’ll unlikely feel particularly inebriated from the six-drink menu (if you’re worried about being blasted early in the day). Compared to the typical price of drinking in Tokyo’s high-end cocktail bars, ¥6,500 for six drinks is a steal, especially for what may be the city’s most distinct and memorable drinking destination.
Matt Buchanan is Eater's features editor.