An unmissable taste of Japan in London
Usually you are never short of whisky choices in London. Being so close to Scotland – the ‘mother land’ of whisky – its safe to say you can usually find a decent scotch whisky in stock in almost any bar.
What you won’t find in abundance, at least not yet, is Japanese whiskey. Even rarer yet is finding an establishment which has anything close to a working knowledge of the history, aromas, flavours and pairings of this sect of the whisky world.
So rare, in fact, that I only managed to find one place in the whole of London that offered a tasting experience of not just one, but three different Japanese whiskies.
I was for this reason that on a rainy Tuesday night in January I found myself in West London, not far from Victoria Station, at the modern and stylish Kouzu restaurant to celebrate a special someones birthday.
We were led to a row of six seats in front of the bar, and said our hello’s to the enthusiastic looking, smartly dressed and energetic young man polishing off some cocktail glasses, seemingly in full control of a small but very well stocked bar as if it was his own home.
If I ignored the fact there was an entire modern and stylish restuarant around us and that we were in central London, the size, layout and set up of this bar transported me right back to about 3 years to when I was in the small but bustling Golden Gai district in Tokyo.
Golden Gai consists of six tiny alleys in the Shinjuku district of the city; a small pocket of Tokyo as it once was, while the tall buildings of the modern world encroaches upon it from all sides. In this small pocket alone lies more bars than you would find in the whole of most UK cities.
Crowded and stacked within these 6 alleys are almost 200 wardrobe-sized bars which only seat 5-6 people at a time. This is all a part of the appeal however, as its one of warmest and friendliest places to socialise in the whole of Tokyo.
The close quarters, limited numbers and intimate nature of the bars meant we got to meet and have great conversations with the local barmen serving us, as well as the 1-2 other patrons who happen to be there. Moreover, with every drink you ordered you got a complimentary snack with it, be it sushi, a dumpling or some prosciutto. It truly was a unique experience. We ended up having a ‘saki crawl’ jumping in and out countless bars all night, trying all sorts of liquors, and still only managed to traverse 1.5 of the 6 alleys.
Given my fond memories of this experience in Japan, it was a wonderful suprise to have this replicated in some small way in the heart of London while enjoying a taste of the spirits from that region.
The intimate style in Kouzu meant we got to have a great interaction with the sommelier, who was hugely knowledgeable on the whole suite of unique liquors from this part of the world; saki, sochu as well as whiskey, and the traditions and the style in which they are served and consumed in that country. I later discovered after a bit on online stalking that he won the ‘Sake Sommelier of the Year’ in 2015. He really was that good!
Not only was it a treat to be served by someone obviously passionate about what he does, but also to be served outstanding sushi and sashimi during the tasting; reminiscent of that time all those years ago in that tiny alley on the other side of the world. Although I have yet to taste sushi as delicious as that in Japan (see my post A sushi experience to remember) this was the best I have tasted so far in the UK.
We went on to enjoy dinner there too, and we continued to be pleasantly surprised with incredible tasting dishes served with style and theater (we highly recommend the smoked duck!).
Perhaps as Japanese whisky becomes more common in London, someone might have the good sense to replicate the secret of Japan’s Golden Gai scene in one of London’s numerous small alleys. In the meantime you can get a small measure of it at Kouzu, who boasts ten of the best Japanese whiskies on the market in their collection, as well as a suite of sake and sochu.
The Japanese whiskey tasting experience for two costs £75 (although you may be able to get slightly cheaper deal on Groupon), and is available twice daily, at 6pm and 8pm. If you know of any other great places in London serving up great whisky or sake, let me know in the comments section below!