BONUS EDIT: It appears that the bartender at Benfiddich has a blog!
As most of you are probably aware, I’m in the middle of a series of articles reviewing some of the best bars in Tokyo, a venture which I have unfortunately named “Measure and Stir’s Magical Mixological Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun(tm)”
So alright, that’s enough hotel bars. Let’s get to the good stuff. I would never have found Bar Benfiddich, in Nishi-Shinjuku, without a recommendation from our esteemed bartender at Gen Yamamoto, and I have to say, this was my favorite bar of the trip. Everything about this bar was great. When we sat down at the bar, we were the first customers of the night, and we had the place to ourselves for a good hour. When the bartender asked us what we want, we replied, bartender’s choice, of course. He then asked if we wanted something standard or interesting, and to long-time readers of Measure and Stir, you will know that I could only say “interesting”.
Immediately, his eyes lit up and he went to work. I have been to bars where the wall is lined with jars full of spices, but usually it strikes me as empty posturing. In the case of Benfiddich, those whole spices are the cornerstone of their drink philosophy. Our bartender produced an enormous stone mortar and pestle, and made a fresh maceration of at least ten different whole spices, which he stirred with vodka and topped with ginger beer, ice, and mint. In such a preparation, the flavors of the spices are robust and very complete, because an infusion of fresh spices can capture very volatile aromas that do not persist for very long after grinding.
He then asked “Do you like Chartreuse?” Academic. He then produced a slender bottle of house-made green chartreuse, and served it to us neat, and in a highball with house-made tonic water. It was love at first sip. I definitely have a new favorite entry in the “& tonic” category of drinks.
Other highlights of the trip included yet a second maceration of fresh ground spices, this time in the flavor profile of Campari, which he used to make a “no campari” Spumoni. The Spumoni, along with the White Lady, the Salty Dog, and the Nikolaschka (or whatever that drink is called) are classic era cocktails that seem to have found a particular popularity in Japan. Here is a recipe:
1 part Grapefruit juice
1 part Tonic water
Shake Campari and Grapefruit juice over ice, then double strain over fresh ice. Top with tonic and garnish with an orange wedge.
At one point he made us a Manhattan with Carpano Antica and Luxardo cherry. The cherry liqueur really elevated this beyond the level of an ordinary Manhattan.
My favorite drink of the night was a drink made with copious amounts of muddled shiso and kumquats, but then, I am a fiend for fresh shiso.
Benfiddich also served us a bloody Mary that was much in line with the one from Gen Yamamoto, but a bit more savory. It was grand.
I didn’t catch what was in this drink, but it was similar to the cream and kabocha from Gen Yamamoto. It was served in a bamboo vessel that the bartender himself had made. Small touches like this really give Benfiddich a lot of character.
This drink contained freshly shredded ginger and gin. The ginger flavor was strong, but it did not have much of the heat tha toften comes with fresh ginger.
I almost feel like Benfiddich was Gen Yamamoto’s sister bar, though I do not believe they are affiliated. Like Gen Yamamoto, the bar counter itself is made from a single piece of wood, cut vertically from a tree, and apparently provided by the same company. The decor is rustic, and I felt like I was sitting inside a feudal Japanese apothecary, complete with old wooden lanterns.
The enthusiasm and ingenuity of the bartender really impressed me, and for this reason, Benfiddich was my favorite bar of the trip.