Stepping inside The Bellwood in Shibuya feels like being transported to the past and the future simultaneously. Bartenders dressed in white lab coats stir up experiments with eclectic names like Martini au Lait and Grilled Corn Bloody Mary, and it oozes a sense of modern sophistication. But there are also classic, nostalgic flourishes throughout the space: sepia-toned photos and old vintage liquor ads hanging picturesquely on the wall, spirits in bottles of all colors and sizes lined up exquisitely over the wooden bar, a stained-glass panel spelling out the bar’s name. With only a handful of high-top seats inside, the space is dimly lit and compact; although it’s packed with people, the atmosphere is relaxed and inviting.

The Bellwood is the second bar from the SG Group, the team behind Shibuya’s renowned SG Club. Helmed by world-renowned bartender Atsushi Suzuki, it’s established itself as one of the premiere destinations in Tokyo for cocktail enthusiasts; this year, it was ranked amongst the 50 best bars in Asia. The bar fuses traditional Japanese bar culture with contemporary concepts to dazzling effect. Conceived as a modern take on a classic kissa, a Japanese-style cafe from the Taisho period, it draws inspiration from a wide array of cuisines and cultures — hosting jazz sessions called Mad Jazzy Wednesdays, for instance, and serving jambalaya and Mexican takoyaki. It’s an amalgamation that may come off as odd or unexpected at first, but it all ends up making sense on the tongue.

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From Katsushika Ward to the World

If it’s hard to put a finger on where, exactly, The Bellwood is reminiscent of, that’s thanks in part to Suzuki’s rich experience abroad. Although his career started domestically in a bar in his hometown of Katsushika ward, Suzuki moved to the United States at age 24 after getting a tip-off from a former colleague about an opening at a spot in New York. The bar he settled in was the legendary Angel’s Share. Initially located in New York’s East Village, it’s not only considered a major catalyst for the resurgence in popularity of the speak-easy style, it was also one of the first bars to introduce Japanese bar culture to the East Coast.

“I think a lot of Americans were fascinated by the Ginza-style bar culture, let alone the integration of it into a speak-easy concept,” says Suzuki.

After two years in New York and brief stints in London and Toronto, another career-changing opportunity came knocking on Suzuki’s door: The former owner of Angel’s Share, Shingo Gokan, offered him the job of head bartender at Speak Low, a new bar he was opening in Shanghai. After another two years there, Suzuki was ready to start something of his own and moved back to his home country, where he established The Bellwood. In this new role, his daily routine concentrates heavily on menu development and branding, and though he thoroughly enjoys this aspect of the industry, being behind the bar still calls to him.

“I definitely miss being able to lead a team and connecting with customers, which is why I still bartend at least once or twice a week,” he explains.

Kaiseki Menu and the Creative Process

The Bellwood’s drink menu shifts its offerings according to which seasonal ingredients are available and mimics the order of a typical Japanese kaiseki dinner, starting with a sakizuke (appetizer) and ending with kanmi (dessert). Drinks made from lighter spirits intended to open the palate comprise the sakizuke portion, heavier and more substantial drinks make up the middle courses and cocktails incorporating sweeter elements such as cacao nibs and seasonal fruits round things out as the kanmi option.

When it comes to menu development, Suzuki occasionally starts with an abstract concept, as with the Yama no Highball, which he thought up while contemplating what kind of highball he’d like to drink on top of a mountain. “I imagined being transported into the woods and a whiff of something smoky came into my mind. So I gathered up ingredients that you can find there, like black cardamom, incorporated a spirit made from tree sap, and roasted some bay leaves,” he says.

Other times, his creations are more spirit-focused, like the New-groni, a recent addition to the menu. A complex spin on the classic Negroni cocktail, it contains experimental ingredients like distilled Tabasco and vermouth made from fermented strawberry juice. As somewhat of a palate cleanser and light snack, a set of rice crackers with a dab of jam is offered on the side — a nostalgic nod to his childhood.

“The rice crackers remind me of the milk senbei from the dagashiya, or candy shop, I used to go to when I was a kid.”

Photo by The Bellwood staff

Nigiri Sushi Reminiscent of New York Cheesecake

Not to be content with an eclectic, constantly rotating drink menu, The Bellwood also boasts its own high-end sushi restaurant. The Bell Sushi omakase course, served in a hidden corner of the bar, pairs 12 pieces of nigiri with three Japanese tea-inspired cocktails. Bell Sushi started, coincidentally, as an experiment.

“The space reminded me of a sushi restaurant, so I decided to try out something fusion,” says Suzuki. “I thought, ‘What if I replace maguro with gin?’” By giving each fish an alcoholic representative, he was able to formulate new flavor combinations rarely seen in Japanese cuisine.

The course also takes you on a journey around the world. As Suzuki puts it: “We start in New York, offering nodoguro with flakes of frozen cheesecake shredded on top. Strangely, it pairs well with the richness of the fish. The trip ends with a dessert sushi in Thailand but stops in India, Brazil and France along the way.”

A Man Cave in the Making and the Future of Cocktails on Tap

Although already holding an impressive array of accolades under his belt, Suzuki has no plan to stop. His next endeavor, set to open in a space directly adjacent to The Bellwood in 2024, will be called the BW Man-cave.

“There used to be a live music club here, but it became vacant,” he explains. “Since it was situated right next to the bar, I thought it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.” The entrance is a tiny hatch reminiscent of a secret hideaway, almost like a speak-easy, but despite its exterior and moniker, the actual “man cave” feels spacious, with natural light coming in from the surrounding floor-to-ceiling windows.

With The Bellwood concentrating more on modern cocktails, the BW Mancave will focus on food, and offer a new concept: cocktails on tap. “I plan on serving ready-made cocktails from the same taps that people usually pour beer out of.”

As he tackles this next challenge, Suzuki has high hopes for the bar scene in Tokyo. “It’s not as popular as an izakaya yet in Japan, and the bar is still a place for a certain crowd,” he says. “I hope that changes soon, so bar culture is more accessible to everyone.”

Find The Bellwood on Instagram at @the_bellwood.

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This article was originally published in the TW November-December 2023 issue