Tokyoite: David Tsujimoto – Owner of Aloha Whisky

The Bar of the Year award at the 2020 Whisky Magazine Icons of Whisky awards went to Aloha Whisky Bar, a relatively new bar that opened in September 2019. We sat down with David, the owner and bartender of Aloha Whisky, to discuss life, Tokyo and the past, present and future of Japanese whisky and his bar. 

Tell us a bit about your background?

I’m Japanese by descent, but I’m a born and raised Hawaiian, and my parents are 2nd and 3rd generation Japanese Americans. None of us speak Japanese, despite how we look. Funny story, I actually have a Japanese friend who doesn’t believe that I don’t speak Japanese.

How did you get into whisky?

My father introduced me to Johnnie Walker Black way back in junior high. It was his drink of choice when we went out for dinner, and he’d always let me have the first sip. Later, as I got a little older, the sips started to get bigger and bigger. Before you knew it, I was bringing bottles of it to my high school parties. A friend of mine accidentally drank all of my Black. He tried to make up for it with a Johnnie Walker Red at the next party, but one night with Red put me off whisky until I turned 21. By the way, I don’t condone underage drinking.

When I came of age, I’d order a Jack on the rocks or a scotch soda for my drink of choice. I tried my first single malt in 2007, a Laphroaig. I was absolutely in love. I was mystified how smoke and the sea seemed to be infused into this liquid. Still, even though I loved whisky, I never bought one of my own until 2017. I was in Kawasaki, teaching English, when I got a call from an old friend. Same friend who drank all my Black, actually. He said, “Hey, Tsuj, can you get me a Hibiki 17?” I told him no, reminding him of what he’d done; but he talked me into it and I said I’d try.

So I spent the next two weeks looking for a bottle, but couldn’t find one. I told him, and he said to get a Hakushu 12 instead. Same problem. I was about to quit when I finally spotted one on the shelf. I bought it, took it home, drank it, and lied to my friend that I couldn’t find it. The taste was euphoric. So here I am, 800 bottles later, tending bar in Tokyo.

I kept teaching, but made it out to hunt for a little whisky every day. On the weekends, my hunts went further out, trekking it on foot with Google maps as my guide. I started posting my journeys and finds on Instagram during the day, and would go whisky bar hopping at night. My IG page found its niche and started picking up steam and attracting whisky lovers from all over the world. At the time, my father’s health had actually started to fade. So I quit my job and went home for a time to be with him in Hawaii. While I was there, I organized a local whisky group, and it’s now got over five hundred members. Whisky was my solace, even though I wasn’t finding myself at the bottom of a bottle. It was the bonding and friendships that got me through those times. Though it also turned my once spartan home into something that looks like an episode of “Hoarders.”

What made you want to open a bar in Tokyo?

It was when I took a look at what whisky had become. It had grown past those first sips from my dad’s glass, or lying to my friend about not being able to find that Hakushu 12. It was an obsession in itself, like a trophy. It wasn’t even about drinking it anymore. It was more like a possession. In all honesty, I took a look at the bottles of whisky crowding my home and wondered what I was ever going to do with all of them. No way I could drink them all. So whisky as a profession was just the logical move, and I’ve been grateful for it ever since.

What can people expect from a visit to Aloha Whisky?

Well, I bring the Aloha Spirit with me from Hawaii. I welcome everyone with an open heart and a warm smile. The Aloha Spirit is sunny days and white sandy beaches. But I cut my whisky teeth at J’s Bar and Bar 11, both in Ikebukuro, and I learned that this spirit needs to be harnessed properly. It’s not pushing an agenda or a belief or something. It’s just caring about each visitor in front of you and keeping the harmony of the room intact.

Since I’m new, I’ve got a healthy selection of Japanese whisky. I managed to sidestep the brunt of the Japanese whisky broom with a little good luck and timing. So I’ve got a lot of Yamazaki, Hibiki, Hakushu, Mars, Akashi, Kirin. I’ve got a whole wall dedicated to Chichibu. Then for Scotch, I’ve got Ben Nevis and the Springbank family represented well on my shelves. I’ve also got a shelf dedicated to bourbon, both old and new. Also, thanks to visitors and friends who bring me bottles from around the world, customers who come in can get some international releases not typically available on the Japanese market. I’ve got a decent selection overall, but I do have something that makes me unique: I’m the only bar that has a lineup of award-winning Ala Wai Hawaiian whiskey.

If you missed the rise of Japanese whisky over the last decade some might say it is too late. Whiskies are either unavailable or replaced by no-age-statement shadows of their former selves. If you are lucky enough to stumble across the good stuff, the price is often astronomical. Your collection seems to show many people that there is still hope! Any advice for someone wanting to build their own Japanese whisky collection? 

If you’d like to build your own Japanese whisky collection I suggest building a time machine, it’d be much cheaper. That sounds like a pretty smug answer, but it’s the truth. Next to this, expect a long and harrowing journey. In all seriousness, this is a very geography-swayed answer, so make friends with people in your area that share the same interests and pick their brain. Or, do what I’m doing and buy Scotch. Believe it or not, Japan is a great place for this. But, if you really want some tips for building a Japanese whisky collection in Japan, swing by the bar, and I’ll share with you some options at that time because it’s not a static answer.

Any advice for someone wanting to open a bar in Tokyo?

There are three rather large hurdles to opening a bar in Japan as a foreigner. The first is getting the proper visa, second is to register the business, and third is to find a good location. Whether or not you already have a visa, the resolution to hurdles one and two is to get a lawyer. The fees might look high, but the costs incurred trying to go at it alone were at least double, not to mention probably quadruple the time. If money is a huge issue, go to JETRO. They’re a semi-governmental agency that helps foreigners/foreign companies open up shop in Tokyo, the caveat being Tokyo only. Now it’s time to find a location. The first thing you should do is get referred to a good realtor. While they search your parameters, ask all your connections/acquaintances if they know of any good places. I found many good places but being an American opening a bar equals drunken bar fights in the minds of the landlord. In the end, I found my current location through a good friend of mine.

The name ‘Aloha Whisky’ implies Hawaii. Does it confuse some punters?

Funny story, actually. I had a local come in one night that came in when he saw the sign. My door has a window, so I saw him grinning before he came in. I figured he was thinking about umbrellas, Mai Tai’s, sand on the floor, tiki torches. You know the deal. When he entered, he looked around and asked, “Why Aloha Whisky?” I couldn’t help but chuckle because he was right. Looked nothing like you’d think. So I took him to the far corner of the bar and showed him a small pineapple-shaped whisky decanter and said, “This is why Aloha Whisky.” He laughed, and then I explained a few other reasons. Whisky is warm, Hawaii is warm. I’m Hawaiian; there’s Hawaiian music, we have Hawaiian beer, whisky, rum. I was going to keep going, but he stopped me and sat down. He now comes in once or twice a month, and I make sure I’ve got new Hawaiian stuff to show him.

What in your mind is so special about Japanese Whisky?

The Japanese were never the greatest creators, but they are the best at improvement. They are masters of taking an existing thing and making it better. And I feel that they have done that with their recent whisky. Some may say that their perfecting of a method lacks heart, but I’d say it’s Japanese art.

Is Japanese Whisky overhyped?

If you compare its quality to its retail price, no, Japanese whisky is not overhyped. In fact, a lot of the time it outperforms its retail price. This fact brings in the speculators and flippers and leads to supply issues. This is where and how Japanese whisky becomes overhyped. Is a bottle of Yamazaki $250 good, yes. Is it $650 good, no. And the drinker, who has no knowledge of retail, would definitely say it’s overhyped.

Aloha Whisky Bar owned by David Tsujimoto in Ikebukuro, Tokyo
Some of the incredible whisky on offer at Aloha Whisky Bar

Tough question – but your three favourite Japanese whiskies? 

My three favorite Japanese whiskies, in no particular order, are Ichiro’s Malt Chibidaru for Mitsukoshi/Isetan department stores, older Yamazaki 18 and Hakushu 25. Ichiro’s Malt is known for making great young whisky. What Ichiro’s san can do in a short period of time is nothing short of amazing. And this Chibidaru (quarter cask) is a prime example, possibly even the best. Yamazaki 18 was the first time I knowingly experienced a mouthfeel. Its texture was that of warm, drawn butter. And the crazy thing is this texture was achieved at 43%abv. Last but not least is the Hakushu 25. Yeah the Hibiki 30 and Yamazaki 25 were great “I drank that” experiences, but Hakushu 25 was the first whisky that gave me goosebumps.

Favourite non-Japanese whisky? 

My favorite non-Japanese whisky has to be Ben Nevis. If Hawaii had a flavor, this Japanese owned Scottish distillery has captured and bottled it. Tropical fruits galore!

Favourite whisky cocktail?

I actually don’t drink cocktails, more or less whisky ones. But if a highball counts, that’s it. I love peaty highballs with a dusting of fresh black pepper.

What do you like most and least about being a bar owner/manager and managing a bar business?

The thing about owning/managing the bar is the guests that drop by. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d meet and become friends with people from so many different places. I’ve always said whisky brings unmet friends together. On the other hand, what I don’t like is washing the toilet and taking out the trash, but hey someone has got to do it.

How has it been, winning two Icons of Whisky Awards 2020?

I somehow managed to feel — still feel, actually — disbelief, embarrassment, joy, and gratefulness all at once. The disbelief was so strong I had to wait until the next day to make sure I hadn’t been dreaming before I posted about it on social media. The embarrassment was really strong too, until I realized that the awards weren’t because, about, or for me as a person. They were for all the people who made Aloha Whisky possible. With that in mind, I can just focus on the joy and gratefulness. Aloha means hello, aloha means goodbye, aloha means thank you, and aloha means I love you. So, aloha!

What have been your biggest challenges so far?

My biggest challenge so far is gaining the local clientele. Usually, bars start with friends and locals as their foundation, then branch out. My bar started in the opposite direction as 90% of my customers are from overseas. Even though my staff speaks Japanese, I think learning will help a bit.

Short and Long terms plans for Aloha Whisky, and beyond?

Short term, I want to keep my staff taken care of, bills paid, and maybe make enough of a profit to do things like get better chairs and a new sound system. Long term, I’d like to start bottling my own casks, doing outside tastings, events—things like that. Ideally, I’d like the outside activities to keep me personally afloat so Aloha Whisky can continue to be a comfortable place where people can get good whisky without breaking the bank. And if I become successful, I’d like to open a Hawaiian restaurant in Japan. The genuine article. Not just fruity pancakes and demi-glace loco moco, but the real deal!

David Tsujimoto, thank you very much for talking to Tokyo Authority.

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