Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What department stores need: a Scotch bar

Browsing in the Isetan department store in Tokyo's Shinjuku area, I discovered a great new idea in making shopping more painless: A Scotch bar.

The bar sells rare and unusual Scotches -- and a few Japanese single-malts -- by the shot, starting from about $3 US. Given the quality of the whiskeys, as well as the service, I expected the prices to be much higher. A dedicated bartender who knows his wares well pours your shot and also gives you a glass of bottled water on the side. I could get used to shopping like this.

I chose an Arran single-malt matured for 8 years in a Sassicaia wine cask, and imported directly from Italy by Isetan. It was 55% alcohol, so I added a wee drop of water, but not before enjoying a sip neat. I liked the complexity, with grilled wheat toast and buttery notes, though I didn't detect any wine flavors the way you do in, say, Glenmorangie's various wine bottle-finished Scotches. The long smooth finish was the highlight. For 315 yen ($3.50), it was the price of a latte and a lot more useful in easing the stress of shopping.

My friend Lucy had a Japanese whiskey, Ichiro 18-year single malt, which our bartender said recently won a contest somewhere for world's best malt. It was 46% alcohol and the attack was actually a little sharper than the Arran's, but ultimately I liked it better without the water. It had a really interesting smokey bacon character and a nice smooth finish. And the shot was just 350 yen -- less than $4 US.

In Tokyo, those prices are insanely cheap. Most small bars sock you with a cover charge just to sit down that's usually more than 1000 yen. I once had a shot of Springbank 12-year at an unexceptional neighborhood bar -- one shot -- and it cost me more than $50 with various fees. So you could have three excellent, unique Scotches at Isetan for less than the price of a seat elsewhere.

Isetan also has a separate wine bar and a Spanish ham bar; the former seemed overpriced, but the latter wasn't a bad deal. And when you emerge from little alcoves of peace and pleasure, you can have some of the world's best chocolate just around the corner. But who needs to emerge? Shopping everywhere should be like this.


guren said...

I went there today and found out that they are only open from 2pm-8pm. So much for making it a regular lunch stop. I did, however, buy an 18+ year old bottle of Berry Brothers Islay Scotch. It's cask-strength at 55.1% and originally came from Laphroig, I think. Let's try it the next time you're in town.

W. Blake Gray said...

If you can restrain yourself from emptying it, you're on. But don't hold back, I'm sure there's more good stuff there.