Tokyo’s bar scene has been through a lot over the course of the pandemic. On top of general social distancing protocols, the government even imposed a temporary ban on alcohol at bars and restaurants for part of 2021 that effectively pulled us back into prohibition – not exactly the return to the Roaring Twenties we were hoping for.
Despite the struggles we faced over the past months, however, we’ve seen our favourite bars demonstrate extraordinary resilience and plenty of new ones enter the scene. The SG Club (voted one of Asia's best bars of 2021) even celebrated the 100-year anniversary of Prohibition in the US by boarding up its entrance and disguising itself as a real estate company.
We’ve had a bit of a bumpy start to the year, with a fresh set of quasi-emergency restrictions in place already, but the good news is that we’ve still got plenty of time to turn things around. With a new year ahead of us, we turned to three of the city’s top bartenders – all of whom are determined to bounce back after a rough 2021 – to find out what we can expect to see in Tokyo bars in 2022.
Classic cocktails will make a comeback with premium ingredients
Tokyo’s bars boast an endless flow of creative libations like clarified milk punches and fizzy tipples topped with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, wasabi foam or something equally outlandish. But while our mixology scene will continue to evolve in 2022, we just might see higher demand for the simpler stuff.
‘People started investing in higher quality ingredients when they began making DIY cocktails during the state of emergency,’ says Rogerio Igarashi Vaz, founder and head bartender of Bar Trench in Ebisu. He’s betting making their own drinks at home has given barflies a great appreciation for drinks with a smaller list of ingredients. ‘Using a good tonic or fruit juice can really elevate your drink even if you’re working with very few tools or ingredients, so I think we’ll see more people asking for straightforward cocktails this year.’
Local spirits will take the spotlight
Simple doesn’t mean boring, either – far from it. Just as the pandemic caused people to upgrade their home bars with high-quality spirits, Tokyo’s bartenders are turning to smaller, Japan-based booze brands to give their drinks a fresh edge.
New craft whisky and gin distilleries popping up in Tokyo and Japan are showing that even simpler, classic drinks like old fashions and G&Ts can still bring something new to the table, says Yujiro Kiyosaki (pictured above, second left), owner of Bar Libre in Ikebukuro.
Since international travel has slowed down, there’s also been a bigger emphasis on local spirits. ‘I haven’t been there myself yet, but there’s a distillery called Mitosaya that’s also working on something interesting,’ says Shingo Gokan. He’s the founder of SG Group, the company behind Shibuya bars The SG Club, The Bellwood and more. Given his venues’ focus on Japanese flavours and drinks, it’s easy to see why Mitosaya appeals to Gokan. The relatively new distillery based in Chiba makes fruit brandies and absinthe using produce sourced from around Japan.
I’m really looking forward to working with a distillery in Kumamoto called Yamaga,’ says Kiyosaki. The whisky distillery is one of many launched in the wake of Japan’s seemingly limitless whisky boom. ‘It won’t be open for another three years, but the taste of the neutral spirits even at this stage is exceptional, as is the natural environment that surrounds the distillery.’
We’re hoping this means that 2022 is the year we’ll finally be able to get a negroni made with all-Japanese ingredients at any Tokyo cocktail bar.
Coffee cocktails will give you more buzz for your buck
No matter where you went in 2021, there was one cocktail you could bet on seeing on every menu: an espresso martini. In fact, coffee-based cocktails in general have been booming across town – so much so that bars and coffee shops have started taking after each other. First, it was Nakameguro’s Starbucks Reserve Roastery that boasted cold brew flights alongside boozy beverages, but now even Blue Bottle Hiroo has its own line of signature cocktails.
While Bar Trench may have been closed for the better part of 2021, its sister establishment Tram continued running as a kissaten (coffee shop) during the day, where patrons could order Irish Coffee and spiked lattes to go alongside a homemade creme caramel.
Another bar that has harnessed Tokyo’s old school kissaten culture to create something spectacular is The Bellwood. Founded by Atsushi Suzuki and Shingo Gokan, The SG Club’s sister bar churns out playful drinks made with coffee or tea, like the Udabura made with Bacardi Ocho, café con leche and sesame.
It might be hard to believe, but Trench’s Igarashi Vaz thinks coffee cocktails are still on their way up, so expect to see even more caffeinated concoctions in 2022.
Drinks and ingredients will be more sustainable
Steering clear of plastic straws is a given, but there are more changes to come in order to protect the bar industry as well as the environment.
‘Every country has different rules and regulations that affect how they make and serve drinks, but everyone is trying harder to be more sustainable these days’, says Igarashi Vaz. ‘It’s difficult to have a system that’s ethically perfect, but we’re doing our best to source more fair trade spirits and keep a watchful eye on what other countries are doing to make the industry more sustainable…Running a bar usually means throwing out dozens of bottles every night, so there’s definitely a need to find environmentally friendly solutions.’
What that means for those of us on the drinking side of the bar remains to be seen, but we’re betting we'll more sustainably made spirits and housemade citrus preparations on menus this year.
Bars will become more easily accessible for everyone
It’s ironic that as drinking at bars in the city became more difficult in 2021, Tokyo’s bars also became much more accessible than they used to be. The cocktail scene is more approachable than ever now, with more low-alcohol cocktails available and new venues popping up in residential neighbourhoods outside of the big nightlife districts.
‘People have been staying away from the busiest parts of town and as a result, places in the outskirts of Tokyo have been becoming more popular,’ says Kiyosaki. ‘Ikebukuro, Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, Kamata, and Kawagoe are all changing and attracting new customers.’ Kiyosaki believes there’s a chance for Tokyo bars to get bigger and be more accommodating to the needs of drinkers with lower mobility. ‘I also think there’ll be more open and airy bar spaces in the near future – there’s also a need for more barrier-free bars.’
‘We recently opened two new kinds of bars in Shibuya – Swrl and SG Low – which focus on food and cocktail pairings, and this has provided more opportunities for locals who feel intimidated by traditional bars to experience cocktail culture, so I think the crowd is changing too,’ says Gokan.
For all the uncertainty 2022 holds, our bar scene, at the very least, is looking as promising as ever.
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