Bar Nishiazabu Cellar
Photo: Bar Nishiazabu Cellar

5 low-key bars in Tokyo with unique drink concepts

The best low-key drinking dens you probably haven’t heard of

Written by Time Out. In partnership with E2-E4
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Tokyo is teeming with bars, from whiskey taverns and craft beer pubs to hidden speakeasies and fancy hotel cocktail lounges, and everyone has their own favourite haunt. That said, there’s also a thrill in stumbling upon new gems on quiet streets, where understated spaces shine the spotlight on surprising flavour combinations and memorable concoctions. 

While finding these bars by chance is serendipitous, we’re here to save you time by sharing them now – these drinks are too interesting to miss. Keep this selection of five underrated bars in your back pocket for days when you’re looking for something fresh yet authentic, and exciting without feeling overstimulating. 

Bar Nishiazabu Cellar

In a drinking scene that favours maximalism with flair bartending and extravagant cocktails, the minimalist Bar Nishiazabu Cellar is a breath of fresh air. Attached to a liquor cellar and hidden in the basement of a nondescript building at the edge of Roppongi, this pared-back space is anchored by its bar counter crafted from a 400,000-year-old block of Honkomatsu stone. With bare concrete walls and a ceiling illuminated by glowing white tubes, Cellar has a raw, elemental interior that earned it a spot on the longlist for the 2022 Kukan Design Award. 

Beyond its cool design, the bar boasts a menu made in collaboration with some of Japan’s top mixologists, meaning you can savour the creations of multiple venues at this one unique location. Highlights include a lemon sour created by the celebrated Shingo Gokan, founder and chief bartender of the world-famous SG Group, as well as a drink made from a special blend of coffee from café & bar æ, collaborated on with Barista Champion Taka Ishitani. There is even a whiskey sour with genmaicha from the speciality Japanese tea cocktail bar Unknown, with more items to be added in the future.  

Additionally, you can order from a curated range of spirits  – some of up-and-coming labels, others of cult status – that are exclusive to the cellar. Recommendations that feature these bottles include a G&T made with small batch gin, a rum soda accented with orange background notes and vintage whiskeys that will satisfy even the most discerning drinks enthusiasts.

For more details, check Bar Nishiazabu Cellar's listing.

Unknown

Just like cocktails, tea can offer an abundance of varying flavour profiles, from sweet and fruity to rich and bitter. At the beautiful Unknown bar in Ebisu, where an impressive bonsai tree sits on a grey bar counter while ukiyoe-inspired artworks of pop culture figures adorn the walls, Japanese tea culture is combined with the art of mixology for a menu of revelatory tea-tails.

The core menu changes seasonally and features about a dozen cocktails, with prices ranging from ¥1,300 to ¥1,700. The drinks are uniquely nameless and are only identified by numbers and their ingredients, which see barley shochu paired with houjicha and coffee liqueur or Ki No Bi gin mixed with matcha, yuzu and club soda.

Beyond the seasonal menu, the bar lists several tea-infused gins, including gyokuro, sencha and black tea gin, which you can savour with tonic, club soda or water for ¥1,300. If you’re familiar with Japanese tea and have a specific flavour combination in mind, you can request a custom cocktail from the bartender and perhaps devise a new favourite tea-tail.

The Hisaka

This craft gin bar off the beaten path near Takadanobaba Station is the reincarnation of the former Bar Hisaka. This bar's rebirth came about due to the forced relocation of the original venue, which succumbed to building demolition amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, it flourishes larger and rejuvenated under the direction of owner and craft cocktail master Hirokazu Ogura.

Upon entering The Hisaka, you'll first see the tasting room. Adorned with familiar designs from the original Bar Hisaka, this convivial area encourages patrons to purchase drink tickets to sample an array of global gins you wouldn't come across in an ordinary bar.

Venture deeper into the establishment and you'll discover the main bar, where Ogura's dedication to craft gin truly comes to life. This space exudes a more intimate and refined aura, akin to a hidden gin speakeasy. The expertly curated cocktail menu is a testament to Ogura's expertise and passion, featuring signature drinks like the Bear's Honey (¥1,760), a creative concoction blending Kumamoto's Bears Book Gin, Chartreuse Jaune, green tea, mikan honey and hoji tea agar.

Open Book Ha

Everyone who’s made a few rounds in Golden Gai knows Open Book, a charming standing bar famous for its artisanal lemon sours and intriguing back story involving renowned Japanese writer Komimasa Tanaka. Fewer people are familiar with the famous bar’s recently opened sister establishment just a stone’s throw from Golden Gai.

Fitted with a kitchen and a mini brewery, Open Book Ha is notably larger than its Golden Gai counterpart, offering table and counter seating for those who want to enjoy a casual bite with a glass or two of the Open Book’s speciality beverage. Made with hand-peeled lemons sourced from Hiroshima and brown-sugar based shochu from Kagoshima, the signature lemon sours here are available on tap (¥900 per glass). The bar also ventures into seasonal shochu-based cocktails, substituting lemons with grapefruits based on availability.

Flying Bumblebee

Inconspicuously located down a narrow set of stairs on a little street in Daikanyama, Flying Bumblebee is easy to miss if you're not looking out for it. Headed by Ai Igarashi, whose experience ranges from managing Ebisu stalwart Bar Trench to stints at Singapore’s D2tllry and Maison Ikkoku, the bar features a sizable cocktail menu with a special emphasis on absinthe.

There's something for every kind of cocktail enthusiast, with a whole page dedicated to negronis and old-fashioneds, as well as a section for low and non-alcoholic beverages. Igarashi's nuanced creations also have the power to turn you into a convert, with drinks like the sweet, slightly smoky Famous Tomato (¥1,700) for those who are on the fence about mezcal, or the rich and spicy Grilled Orange Old-Fashioned (¥2,000) for those who swear they hate whisky. 

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