The Hokkaido winter in 2015 was cold, austere and beautiful. We were there as part of a packaged tour and started our trip by spending a few days in the Rusutsu Ski Resort, where trees and snow were plentiful.
After spending the entire day out in the snow and learning how to
fall down ski, we had a nice dinner and headed over to the Main Bar Obrist for some drinks to end our day. It was surprisingly empty when we arrived, and we sat down at one end of the dimly lit but well heated bar.
Our formal-looking bartender, Shimura-san, handed us the menu, together with bar snacks and glasses of water. Nikka Whisky has a large distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido and so it wasn’t surprising to see a prominent display on the bar counter featuring their Taketsuru Pure Malt series, with notes comparing different maturities.
I was new to Japanese whisky, whisky in general for that matter, and only started tasting them earlier that year after an ex-colleague in Japan brought me and other overseas visitors to the Hibiki bar in Tokyo. That was the first time I tried the famous Hibiki 17y and found that I quite liked it.
Since it was on the bar menu, I promptly ordered a glass and asked Shimura-san for his recommendation for something similar from Nikka. He paused to consider and solemnly suggested the Taketsuru 21y.
Both were served in old-fashioned glasses and poured over large clear ice spheres which I’ve always found quite fascinating. I know that scientifically, a sphere minimises total surface area and slows down the rate of dilution, but I’m just drawn to how pretty they look.
After alternating sips between the two glasses, my preference was still the Hibiki while The Wife chose the Nikka. They were both good, of course, but as always, taste is subjective, and any drink you enjoy is a good drink.
We asked Shimura-san to pour himself a glass and he chose the Nikka Coffey Grain. As we quietly enjoyed our drinks, he proceeded to parade and describe the various bottles of Nikka that he had collected, including the rare Single Malt Yoichi 15y and 20y which were almost impossible to buy.
One thing that I like to do when sitting at the bar with a friendly and knowledgeable bartender is to ask him (or her) to make their favourite cocktails. This time, I added one requirement — my cocktail must feature a Nikka whisky.
“Have you ever tried a Godfather?” asked Shimura-san.
No, I had not, and with a name like that, there was no way I was not having one.
He pulled out a Nikka Taketsuru 17y (the 21y would have been wasted in a cocktail), a Disaronno amaretto liqueur and proceeded to solemnly mix my drink.
I’m a fan of Manhattans because of the sweetness imparted from the vermouth and Maraschino cherry, so the almond-flavoured Godfather was right up my alley. I liked it so much that we ended up buying a bottle of the Nikka 17y at the Sapporo Daimaru, and a Disaronno from an online store when we got home.
Once in a while, when I’m in the mood for some Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, I mix one up at home and fire up Netflix to watch the moody and violent trilogy.
Ironically, the Nikka 17y has remained unopened given the crazy run-up in price (almost 10x increase!), making it too painful to drink. I’ve substituted it with a more reasonably priced Prince Scotch 18y blended whisky that I got from the gift shop of the Prince Park Tower Hotel in Shibakoen, where I used to stay during work trips to Tokyo.
For The Wife, Shimura-san poured a Moscow Mule made with their specialty in-house ginger vodka infused right inside the bar. It was pleasantly spicy and a good contrast to the sweet Godfather.
We’ve had a few Moscow Mules since then, but somehow, the one we had in Obrist was the best. Steeping ginger in vodka makes a huge difference in the final taste, and it seems that Hokkaido grows very good ginger.
If you want to try making them at home, here are the recipes:
- Fill old-fashioned glass with ice cubes
- Add 15 ml (0.5 oz) Amaretto liqueur
- Add 45 ml (1.5 oz) Whisky
- Stir well and enjoy
- Fill copper mug with ice cubes
- Add 45 ml (1.5 oz) Vodka
- Add 15 ml (0.5 oz) lime juice
- Add 120 ml (4 oz) ginger beer
- Stir well, garnish with lime wedge and enjoy
We had a really good time at Obrist and, thanks to our excellent bartender, learned a lot about Japanese whiskies and even discovered two new cocktails that now rank among our favourites.
They are excellent during cold snowy days, and even more so when the haunting Godfather theme song is playing in the background.