David Tsujimoto is the owner of Aloha Whisky Bar in Ikebukuro. Despite only opening in September 2019, the bar won the Bar of the Year award at the 2020 Whisky Magazine Icons of Whisky. TW sat down with Tsujimoto to discuss his life, Tokyo and whisky.
1. Tell us about your background and how you got into whisky.
I’m a born-and-raised American of Japanese descent — my parents are second and third generation American-born Japanese. Despite our genetics, none of us speak Japanese. I have a Japanese friend who still doesn’t believe me.
I was introduced to Johnnie Walker Black back in junior high school by my father. Soon I was bringing bottles of it to high school parties. A friend drank all my Black one night and I tried to make up for it with a Johnnie Walker Red. This bottle put me off whisky until I hit 21. Of course, I don’t condone underage drinking.
After that, I’d order a scotch soda or a Jack Daniels on the rocks as my drink of choice. Finally, I tried a Laphroaig, my first single malt, in 2007. I fell head-over-heels in love. The complexity of this dram floored me.
2. How did you begin your journey into Japanese Whisky?
Would you believe I had never bought a bottle of Japanese whisky until 2017? I was teaching English in Kawasaki. The same friend who drank all my Black back in Hawaii called asking me to buy him a Hibiki 17. I begrudgingly said I’d try and spent the next two weeks looking for a bottle. After not finding one, the request changed to a Hakushu 12 — another hard-to-find whisky. I was about to quit when I found one. I bought it, drank it myself and lied to my friend that I couldn’t find it. That dram transformed my life. Now here I am, more than 1,500 bottles later, tending bar in Tokyo.
3. Why did you open a bar in Tokyo?
I kept teaching but hunted for whisky every day, venturing further out on weekends. I started posting whisky finds on Instagram during the day and would go whisky bar hopping at night. Soon, my Instagram page started attracting attention from global whisky fans.
At this time, my father’s health started to deteriorate. So, I quit my job and went back to Hawaii to be with him. I founded a whisky group while there that is now five hundred plus members strong. It was those friendships and camaraderie that got me through those times.
I looked at what whisky had become to me. It had grown to become an obsession, less about drinking and more about collecting. What was I going to do with these bottles? Whisky as a profession was the logical move.
4. The name Aloha Whisky implies Hawaii. What does it mean and does it confuse some punters?
All clients can find Aloha Spirit here: an open heart and a warm smile. I don’t push an agenda — I care about each visitor in front of me and manage the harmony of the room so that everyone has a good time.
A Japanese customer turned up to my bar one night and I saw him grinning through the window of the door before coming in. He entered, looked around and asked: “Why Aloha Whisky?” I showed him a pineapple-shaped whisky decanter and said: “This is why Aloha Whisky.” He laughed and I went on: “I’m from Hawaii; there’s Hawaiian music, we have Hawaiian beer, whisky, rum. And both whisky and Hawaii are warm.” He bought it and he’s now a regular. I try to have new Hawaiian stuff to show him when he comes.
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5. Tell us more about the selection of drinks in Aloha Whisky Bar.
Japanese whisky is well-represented at my bar with many Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hibiki, Chichibu, Mars, Akashi and more. For Scotch, I primarily focus on Japan-exclusive releases. I’ve got some good bourbons and thanks to my wonderful customers, I have international releases not typically available here. Plus, I’m the only bar that has a lineup of award-winning Ala Wai Hawaiian whiskey.
6. Was it tough opening a bar in Tokyo?
First, you need the proper visa and to register the business. I strongly advise using a lawyer to help with this. JETRO can help with the logistics, the caveat being that it is in Tokyo only. Second, get a realtor to help with location hunting and concurrently with that, ask your connections for advice – I found my current location through a friend of mine.
The customer base is also important. Bars typically start with friends and locals as their initial clients, then grow from there. For me, it was the opposite, with the majority of my customers coming from overseas.
7. What is so special about Japanese whisky and is it overhyped?
The Japanese are masters of taking an existing thing and improving it. Some say this lacks heart, but I believe it’s Japanese art.
Compared to the retail price, Japanese whisky is not overhyped. However, this value brings in the flippers, leading to supply issues and that’s where the hype explodes. Is a bottle of Yamazaki 18 good at $250? Yes. $950 good? No.
8. How did it feel winning two Icons of Whisky Awards?
I simultaneously felt joy, disbelief, guilt and gratitude. After the initial shock, I realized that the awards were for all the people who made Aloha Whisky Bar possible. Aloha means hello, goodbye, I love you and thank you. So, aloha to everyone!
9. How has the pandemic affected you?
The pandemic hit all bars hard. We have received some government support. I have tried to be proactive — I have at times been able to get a takeout license. I have also run regular online events, sometimes involving distillery tours, which have proven extremely popular.
10. What are the future plans and dreams for Aloha Whisky Bar?
Short term, hopefully coming out of the pandemic. I want to continue to pay bills and look after my staff. I want Aloha Whisky Bar to be fully open so my customers can enjoy great whisky again. I want Aloha Whisky to continue being a bar where people can get good whisky for a reasonable price.
I’ve just begun ramping up on a long-term plan to bottle my own casks. I’ve already released a few bottles, with more in the pipeline and opened a retail shop to sell my bottlings and merchandise.
I’d love to expand my shop, open another bar and possibly an authentic Hawaiian restaurant in Tokyo — not just Loco Moco and fruity pancakes, but the real deal.
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Watch this video filmed in Aloha Whisky Bar to see inside the bar and learn more about whisky.
Read more about Japan and alcoholic beverages:
Japanese Rum – Is it the Next Big Thing From Japan?
The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Gin
Sake Flavor Everything: Eat It, Drink It, Bathe In It
All About Amazake: From the History of Fermentation to Modern Experimentation