Beneath Bincho, a Japanese pub-style restaurant in Soho, there is a hidden gem awaiting brave whisky-lovers. It’s a small, recently-opened bar called Mizuwari, which means “mixed with water”, a reference to the most popular way of drinking spirits in Japan.
In order to find this bar, you must make your way through all the customers enjoying their food in the restaurant until you reach a small staircase leading you down into the dark, candlelit cavern that is Mizuwari. Once you have safely arrived, your barman will welcome you with a menu and their special Bincho-tan water, which is purified by a stick of black charcoal floating inside the bottle. I don’t know if it was just my mind playing tricks on me, but the water did seem to have a crisper, more refreshing taste than your average H20.
The menu is mostly filled with pages of different variations of whisky and whisky-based cocktails
After settling down in the cozy atmosphere with aged wooden tables and chairs (slightly offset by pumping electronic music), it’s time to order. But where to begin? If you are unfamiliar with whisky in general and Japanese whisky in particular, then you may feel a bit lost. The menu is mostly filled with pages of different variations of whisky and whisky-based cocktails. This definitely is not the place to go if you have no interest in this type of alcohol, although there are a few non-alcoholic options for those who were perhaps dragged here unawares. If you ask nicely, the bartender may even be nice enough to bring down a bottle of sake from upstairs if nothing else catches your eye. But it’s certainly best if you come here prepared to tackle the whisky menu head-on (preferably with a full wallet!).
Fortunately, for anyone looking to educate themselves about this fascinating niche of the liquor market, you couldn’t ask for a better place to start. The menu does a decent job of describing what you are getting into and although the nearly endless array of options can be daunting, all you need to do is ask the bartender for some assistance. He will gladly tell you about the two main Japanese whisky companies – Suntory (which owns Ichiro and Yamazaki, the oldest distillery in Japan) and Nikka (which is actually owned by beer-maker Asahi). He can also explain about the subtle differences between a 10-year old Yamazaki and a 12-year old, for example. But generally speaking, Japanese whisky is closer to Scotch whisky than anything else.
Generally speaking, Japanese whisky is closer to Scotch whisky than anything else
If you are slightly less adventurous, you might have more luck in trying a whisky cocktail, as there are many interesting ones on offer here. The simplest of these would probably be the Hakushu Highball, priced at 10 pounds, which is a nice mix of a 12-year old Suntory whisky with soda water. It is also suggested that you pair this with some grilled meat from the bar food portion of the menu. The tender yakitori skewers arrived a bit late, but were nicely cooked and did go well with the highball. If you so wish, you can also order some salad or other small dishes like edamame beans.
There were one or two nuisances – the entrance to the washroom for Bincho is located right in the bar, which meant a lot of coming and going – but overall, this is a nice place to come for a late-night drink after work with some close friends who are willing to try something new and off-the-beaten-spirit-path.
By Tim Holm