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Digging Deep With The Bar Keep With The Biggest Smile - David Tsujimoto From Aloha Whisky

(Image Source: Whisky Magazine Japan, Stefan van Eycken)

 

You hit Ikebukuro Station, Tokyo, take the West Exit and cross the street from Exit C3. Once you see the Izumi Building, head up to the third floor and knock on Unit 3-29-11. It’s a route trusted by whisky lovers from all over the world to getting to one of their favorite bars and the friendliest bartenders – Aloha Whisky Bar, operated by the affable David Tsujimoto-san.

You might have already heard of this impressive bar which has the most passionately-curated and valuable collection of Japanese whiskies including highly sought-after Chichibus. Opened in late 2019, it almost immediately went on to bag the Whisky Magazine’s prestigious awards in 2020. This is a bar we’ve followed and admired for a long time, and is run by the very friendly David Tsujimoto-san.

 

 

Why “Aloha Whisky”? Japanese by descent but raised in sunny, warm Hawaii, David-san welcomes everyone with warmth and joy in the most Hawaiian spirit. He moved back to Tokyo a couple of years back and went on to graciously open a bar of his own to let us have a taste of his extensive collection. He has no doubt done a splendid job of running Aloha Whisky and was named Icons of Whisky’s Bar Manager and not to mention the Bar of the Year for 2020, under the Rest of World category.

Today, we have him with us to answer some of our burning questions about Japanese whiskies – popular and the still underrated (now, what’s going on in Kagoshima?!), growing a personal collection, why Mars Whisky is like a Justin Bieber hit song and digging deep and finding out what started it all, who David would most love to have a drink with and some of his best memories with whisky. Come join us for this amazingly heartfelt and sincere conversation.

 

 Hi David! (Image Source: Mac Salman from @KanpaiPlanet, Tokyo Weekender)

 

88B: Hi David! Thank you for speaking with us today. 

David: Yeah, happy to! 😃

 

88B: Everyone dreams of one day being a bar owner, yet you’re already living our dream! Could you take us through a day in your life as the owner and manager of Aloha Whisky? We’re curious to know what you get up to and whether our dream is still achievable!

David: I'm going to sound lazy, but I wake up when I wake up and lounge around till I get unbearably hungry. Lounging around for me is posting and replying on social media, checking emails, tasting samples and browsing the net to see what's hot domestically and abroad. At 11ish I go out to eat, return home and lounge around till I leave for Tokyo at 3pm.

 

 

Once in the city, I check in at 2-3 liquor stores, eat another meal and then prepare the bar for opening. After work I do accounting and catch the last train home. I usually arrive home at 1am, eat something, shower, lounge a bit more and go to bed, where I'll probably dream of whisky.

I sometimes look at my life and think, what are you doing, but hey, I eat, drink and sleep my hobby.

Oh, and about the other question, your dreams are achievable until you decide there no longer achievable. And although my opinion doesn't matter, if your dream is to open a bar, I believe in you! 

  

 First moving to Japan...

 

88B: You grew up as a fourth-generation Japanese-American who does not speak Japanese (we can’t speak our mother tongue as well!). Yet you have done very well in Japan since 2013 – first as a corporate English teacher, then a college instructor, and now a multiple award-winning bar owner.

What’s something that was a real shock to you when you first fully lived in Japan?

David: My first time visiting Japan was when I moved there. And first thing that shocked me was seeing the Skytree from my hotel window. Circularly strobing color changing lights about a mile high in the sky, I was convinced for a moment it was a UFO. After that, my biggest shock, and it still gets me today, is how cheap things can be here if you know where to go and what to do.

 

 Skytree - could be mistaken for a UFO. But as they say, anything that you don't know flying right at you remains unidentified, until you find out you got hit in the face with a banana. (Image Source: JW-Webmagazine)

 

88B: You have been in Japan since 2013 and you began seriously collecting whisky since around 2017 – right around the time we saw an incredible explosion in demand for Japanese whisky around the world. This means you had a front-row seat to watch the Japanese whisky boom!

What’s your secret trick to getting your hands on all these great bottles now that they are always being chased by thousands of fans? Although Japanese whiskies have become so popular, is there a brand that you feel is still too underrated?

 

I'll say it again, there must be something in the water down in Kagoshima.

 

David: Prior to getting into whisky, my hobby was just walking around the city. I'd randomly pick a station I hadn't visited before and just walked. So, incorporating liquor shops into my former hobby was very easy. And, like reverse door-to-door sales, pounding the pavement earned me early success in finding nice bottles. Now that I'm a somewhat known bar, I get priority treatment at some liquor stores as I have a reputation for opening bottles immediately and offering them for reasonable prices.

  

  

A brand that I feel is underated, despite its lineage and ability to sell out, is Mars. And when I talk about Mars, I'm talking their single malts from the Tsunuki distillery in Kagoshima and the Shinshu distillery in Nagano. They're both extremely well versed at a young age and will only get better with time. Also keep an eye out for Kanosuke and Ontake. I'll say it again, there must be something in the water down in Kagoshima.

 

David on a very special training taking him to Ontake Distillery in Kagoshima.

  

88B: Aloha Whisky Bar has over 600 different whiskies from across the world and also one of the largest selections of Japanese whisky in the country.

Which bottle would you recommend to someone new to whisky?

David: When someone new to whisky comes in I usually do a low proof flight of Scotch that include an ex-bourbon cask, a sherry cask, an Islay, followed by a bourbon. I then bump up the proof according to what they appreciated the most. 

 

David has even bottled his own juice - a Blair Athol Scotch for Aloha Whisky Bar's 1st Anniversary!

 

88B: Which bottle would you recommend to someone who already loves Japanese whisky?

David: I'd recommend either the first iteration of Yamazaki and/or Yoichi. They're both essential pieces of history and are delicious to boot.

  

Another Aloha Whisky bottling in conjunction with the Thompson Bros over at Dornoch Distillery - a 20 year old Scotch from the Sutherland area, a favorite with the indie bottlers. Hint: It sports a cat on its emblem and is known for its waxiness.

 

88B: People love the friendly and warm vibe when they visit Aloha Whisky. There is also a lot of humility and willingness to learn even from customers, as you see yourself as an “eternal student of whisky”.

Could you share with us something interesting that you had recently learnt while drinking whisky? 

David: After recently tasting a bunch of samples for future bottlings, I realized a pattern. The first whisky you taste in the morning will be extremely sweet. In fact, both your sense of taste and smell are on heightened alert. Thus, you can taste and smell all the nuances of the whisky. But on the other hand, people don't usually drink whisky in the morning. They usually drink at night after a days worth of nose and palate bombardment. So in the future, when selecting a cask, I'll base my decision on both a morning and evening tasting.

  

A Father's Day special. What a lovely choice.

 

88B: If you could invite any notable person you admire – from any time in history – to visit your bar, who would you invite? What whiskies would you recommend them to try?

David: This answer is easy, it'd be my mother and father. They were the best parents anyone could ask for. They supported me in everything I ever wanted to do. I'd give this all up in a second to turn my head and see them smiling at me from the end of the counter one last time. And if they had time for a drink, I'd serve my father John Walker's Oldest since Black was the first whisky he ever gave me. And for my mother, water, because she didn't drink. Just being with us was all she wanted.

     

88B: When Aloha Whisky was just opened, it already has one of the largest selections of Japanese whisky in the country. This is owing to your incredible collection of over 1,000 bottles which you managed to amass within only one year.

What advice would you give to people hoping to grow their personal collection of whisky?

David: When I first started my whisky journey I bought only Japanese whisky because it was what I loved. I then met other people who loved other whisky and I took on their traits. My focus eventually became buy everything. And unless your goal is to open a whisky bar in the future, don't do this. It's best to set a goal and a budget and then build a relationship with a shop that fits.

 

  

88B: There are few more qualified than you to say they have great taste in whiskies – considering your immense collection of whiskies, your two Icons of Whisky Awards and appointment as a judge for the Tokyo Whisky & Spirits Competition.

It’s clear you have great taste in food too, seeing as you often ask your friends / fans on Instagram what they think of your meals.

What was the best meal you recently had, and what would be your ideal whisky to pair it with?

David: My friend Kostas took me to his favorite tan tan ramen joint near his home one stop away from Ikebukuro. Despite being a ramen fanatic, I have very little experience with this sesame based noodle. It didn't matter as the dish and I connected like long lost friends over space and time. Here's a picture of this spicy piece of bowl art:

 

 

  

The ideal whisky pairing would be Hibiki 1989 lion crest first release. The round soft sherry sweetness would exemplify the flavors then calm the heat, preparing you for the next bite. Slurp, sip, repeat!

 

 

The One by Justin Bieber. I'm not a big fan of his but this song is happy, bouncy, bright and makes you feel good about the future.

  

88B: Some of your top new Japanese distilleries include Mars Tsunuki and Kanosuke. Chichibu is also one of your favourites.

Could you help us match these distilleries with a song?

Mars Tsunuki is to __________

David: The One by Justin Bieber. I'm not a big fan of his but this song is happy, bouncy, bright and makes you feel good about the future.

Kanosuke is to __________

David: Drinking Problem by Ekolu. It is catchy, clever, a bit heavy and is so delicious it could lead to having a drinking problem.

Chichibu is to __________ 

David: The Hurt by Kalapana. I'll leave this one up to your imagination. Please give it a listen while sipping on your favorite Chichibu release.

  

Watch out for 'em.

  

88B: You have had a long relationship with whisky. You were just in high school when you began sipping Johnnie Walker Black Label with your dad and your high school friends. You graduated to Scotch sodas, Jack Daniel’s and eventually a single malt from Laphroaig. You became obsessed with whisky in Japan after your first taste of a Hakushu 12. The whisky community has also provided you solace and friendship in times of difficulty.

Could you share some of your best memories around whisky? If you could travel back in time to any dram you’ve ever had in the past, which fond memory would you revisit and what would be the whisky in your glass?

 

Very special bottles set aside for some of the awesome people brought together by whisky in David's life.

 

David: One of the best memories I had around whisky came at one of the worst moments in my life. After 8 month of searching, I had finally found a bar space. Soon after this, I found out my father was diagnosed with end stage lung cancer. Even though it would put my bar in financial trouble, it was a no brainer, I moved back to Hawaii to be with my father. With my father. Without my knowledge, a whisky group I was a part of raised 15k in two days to help ease my burden. Thus, I have set aside a pour of mellow harmony or a deep harmony for all those involved.

As for a purely fond memory, I'd like to travel back in time to the evening Ichiro san and Yumi san came to my bar to congratulate me for the Icons of Whisky awards. I was drinking something at the time but I don't recall what it was. Whisky is the reason, but the moments and people it brings is what it's all about.

  

A very special night indeed! David has just won his first major award! Who else was there to congratulate him - none other than Ichiro and Yumi from Chichibu Distillery!

 

88B: To many outsiders, Hawaii isn’t a place commonly associated with whisky. But Aloha Whisky is unique for its line-up of award-winning Ala Wai Hawaiian whiskey. Back in Hawaii, you have also organised local whisky club events with over hundreds of members.

How is the Hawaiian whisky scene similar to or different from that of Japan? Do Hawaiians like a particular style of whisky?

David: The Hawaii whisky scene is very different from Japan, especially when it comes to bars. As far as I know, there aren't any purely whisky bars. The thing that comes the closest are cocktail bars that have a whisky selection. And unlike Japan, where it's legal to stock your bar with whisky from your personal collection, bars must get bottles from official channels. Thus, you won't see too much variation from bar to bar.

As for the people of Hawaii, they mostly like Crown Royal, and for the connoisseurs, bourbon, Scotch and Japanese whisky, probably in that order.

  

Talk about blast from the past! A bottle of Crown Royal from 1977 inspired by the thriving disco scene at the time.

 

But if I had to say one thing, it'd be to not be afraid to try on new hats, especially if the one you're wearing now doesn't fit.

 

88B: You’ve worn many hats in your life and have become successful on your own terms, having established yourself in a foreign country, took routes off the beaten path, gained some rich experiences along the way and also found the time to raise funds for the children’s charity Mirai no Mori.

If you could give some advice to younger people who are still searching for a direction in life, what would it be?

David: I'm probably the last person to be giving advice to young people in search of direction. I happen to have worn multiple hats because of my short attention span. I just got lucky that one fell atop my head and fit perfectly. But if I had to say one thing, it'd be to not be afraid to try on new hats, especially if the one you're wearing now doesn't fit. Wow, this is the most I've ever talked about hats in my life.

 

Couple of awesome tees David sold to help support Mirai no Mori, a foundation supporting underprivileged youth in Japan.

 

Check out Mirai no Mori here!

 

88B: Can you tell us the story and inspiration behind One Coin Bar?

David: I started that for many reasons. The first was to celebrate my second anniversary and as a thank you for all the support. Secondly, to ease the financial burden from corona and allow people to try new things. And finally, to kill some bottles so I could open new ones. The concept was a hit and I continued it in one form or another until all corona restrictions were lifted in late March. I plan to bring it back at least once a year regardless if restrictions return.

 

88B: What’s the biggest whisky industry hype or myth that you hope to debunk?

David: Whisky enthusiasts already know, but there's a lot of imposter Japanese whisky on the market. This deception defrauds both the unwitting customer and the true Japanese whisky makers. Luckily the Japanese government, assisted by industry leaders, has drawn out regulations on what constitutes authentic Japanese whisky. I've been rather busy lately but I always have time to respond to questions about real vs. imposter Japanese whisky, just take a picture of the bottle in questions and DM me your concerns.

 

 

88B: Can you leave our avid readers with one tip or trick to unlocking a great bar experience?

David: Nowadays, most bars and their bottles are on social media, so you can go into the bar with a game plan. But if the bar is a complete mystery, treat it similar to an omakase sushi experience. Tell the bartender your budget, if you have any strong dislikes and then leave the rest to them. Bartenders may not know everything about whisky, but they usually are very familiar with the whisky in their bar. After that, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

 

Final Thoughts

Well, that's certainly a real treat to get to speak to David and we've learnt lots about what it takes to run one of the best (and friendliest) whisky bars around, some Japanese whiskies to keep a look out for, what we should be pairing our whiskies with (food and music!), and just what liquid sunshine fuels David and just why whisky lovers from all over the world love hitting up Aloha Whisky Bar.

If you're looking for a great experience, do check out Aloha Whisky Bar and help us give a big "Hi!" to David.

 

Image Courtesy of David and @AlohaWhisky

 

Kanpai!

 

@111hotpot

 

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Aloha Whisky | Information

Aloha Whisky is an award-winning whisky bar managed by the wonderful David Tsujimoto-san, located in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, serving whisky drink-in, take-out and also by the bottle.

Location:

Aloha Whisky Bar is a 7 minute walk from the West Exit of Ikebukuro Station. It is located across the street from Exit C3.

Izumi Building 3F-B, 3-29-11, Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo 171-0021, Japan

Opening Info:

3 – 8pm, last order at 7pm. Please contact the bar ahead to confirm daily availability.

Contact Details:

Website: alohawhisky.jp

Social Media: Instagram @alohawhisky | Facebook https://www.facebook.com/alohawhisky

Email: alohawhisky@gmail.com | Phone: +81 3-6912-7887

Very Responsive! 😄