Japan’s capital is known for its multitudes of bars. Tokyo Confidential, however, is a bar like no other. So, what makes it so special? A few weeks before its official opening on October 11, Tokyo Weekender caught up with its founders, Cocktails of Asia author Holly Graham and head bartender Wakana Murata, to find out. We began, though, by asking about their backgrounds.

Photo by Millie Tang

Wakana, can you tell us about your time at Tokyo Gold Bar at Edition?

Murata: I used to work in Singapore, and I got a message from the bar director at Gold Bar, a Japanese bartender called Hide. At that time, I didn’t know The Edition or Gold Bar as a brand, but I knew it was going to be big in Tokyo, so I decided to leave Singapore in June 2020. Hide taught me a lot about the basic knowledge of bartending. He was definitely one of my mentors. I learned Japanese bartending at Gold Bar at Edition because I already had experience and knowledge of Western bartending.

Photo by Millie Tang

Holly, can you tell us about your experiences as a journalist in Hong Kong?

Graham: I moved to Asia as a teacher, working in Thailand and South Korea. I then got to Hong Kong and realized there were more opportunities for non-locals. When I was younger, I wanted to be a scriptwriter. I started to build a solid portfolio, freelancing and writing for free, while also making connections. Then the job at Time Out came up. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I took it and got to know a lot of the bar scene, meeting chefs and bartenders.

The main person I have to credit would be my best friend Beckaly, who owns several bars in Hong Kong. She taught me so much about creating the vibe, hospitality, aesthetics and mood. When I left my job at Time Out, I was already friends with the team at The Old Man. I went to drink there, and they asked me ‘what are you gonna do?’ I asked if they wanted to give me a job. That’s how I started in bars.

Which area has the best bartending scene?

G: I am heavily biased, but Asia has the best bartending scene. I love London and there are some great bars there, the same as in North America and South America, but for me coming home is always the best. We always have the best flavors. Maybe it’s the skew of my palette. I’m more used to Asian flavors. There is no pretension in hospitality across Asia. Everywhere I’ve been, people have been so good at hospitality, and they have the drinks to back it up. Hospitality is the most important part. You remember how you feel at a bar.

Photo by @lemonlens

How did the two of you meet?

M: We’d known each other for two or three years on Instagram. Then, this February, we finally met in person.

G: I don’t really follow bars on Instagram, but I follow bartenders, especially young, female bartenders. That’s something I try to champion a lot in my work. I found her account through mutual friends. I thought this chick looks cool, so I followed her. I knew the hardest part would be finding a head bartender for this space. Someone who could work with me and was fluent in Japanese and English. Obviously, we’re both tatted up. We even have matching Tokyo Confidential tattoos that we got recently. There was a picture of her pouring a champagne tower and I cannot tell you how much of a eureka moment that was. I knew I had to get her. We just vibe and click together.

Why did the two of you decide to start your own bar?

G: Our business partners approached me, and they were even more ecstatic when they found out my husband was in the same industry. I love the Japanese bar scene, but I think something we have isn’t here. This level of craziness. I wanted to bring an amalgamation of myself and what I have learned from my mentors to Japan. I wanted to do something different. A bit rowdier. A bit more open.

Photo by Millie Tang

Why did you go for the name Tokyo Confidential?

G: Originally the working title was Tokyo House Party and in Japanese it would have been Tokyo Home Party, but it didn’t have the same ring to it. We have a gorgeous view of Tokyo Tower. I googled it, thinking maybe if I read about the history, something would come up. It’s a radio tower. Radio means communication and communication is a huge theme for us. Also, I had just watched Tokyo Vice and I liked the gritty, sexy, sleazy and edgy underbelly of Tokyo. I feel like the word confidential gives the impression that you never know what’s going to happen. I was also thinking about the film L.A. Confidential.

To keep something confidential and communicate is a kind of oxymoron. What happens at Confidential stays at Confidential because we want you to be your true self. We don’t want you to feel confined by life or societal norms. Confidential is where you can cut loose.

Photo by Millie Tang

What is the vision behind the interior of Tokyo Confidential?

G: We were thinking of a modern, high-end Japanese living room. While we were brainstorming, we were looking at rich people’s living rooms and Architectural Digest magazine. The bar is the biggest element. We have this beautiful back bar as well. The wooden bar deck was made from salvaged wood from an old temple in Nagano. We also have a bottle keep system. When people who want to buy a Hakushu 25, for instance, but don’t want to drink the whole bottle, they can store it here and come back with friends to drink it. There is so much more to Tokyo Confidential. You need to come for a drink to experience it for yourself.

What does the motto “Pull Up, ‘Fess Up” mean?

G: I actually don’t know the origins, but I think it came from church. You pull up a pew. To pull up is like turning up and to ‘fess up is to confess. We actually give our guests pens to write down confessions on the back of our coasters. Here you come and express confidential information and confess your sins, taking the weight off yourself. I think every bar needs a tagline.

Photo by Millie Tang

How would you describe Tokyo as a cocktail?

G: Stirred and served up, like a martini or Manhattan. Like a spirit forward.

M: Definitely something strong and sexy but classy. We have a lot of traditional Japanese classic cocktails which a lot of Western people may not know. And they’re all very weird. Sweet and vinegary with weird colors.

What is so special about the flavors of agave and Champagne that you both love?

G: We just love them. Let’s just have more of an emphasis on agave and Champagne. Champagne is easy to drink. It’s delicious. Never say no to a glass of champagne. For example, in the U.K., we usually drink a glass of Champagne as soon as we wake up on Christmas morning. I think any time of day is a good time for Champagne. It always feels fancy and glamourous.

M: I can’t have a shot in the morning, but even if I’m hungover or really sick, I could drink a glass of champagne.

G: Agave for me is so special. When I went to Mexico and saw the Tequila production, it stole my heart. It’s so special and you can taste it in the Tequila.

Photo by Benjamin Sim

How about Awamori?

M: We are not a Japanese bar, but we’re in Japan, so we want to use local ingredients as much as possible, yet not typical ones like sake or shochu. More like niche and rare ingredients. Not a lot of bars use Awamori. It’s so strong and easily overpowers. It also works well with other ingredients. You can switch the vodka with Awamori for an espresso martini and it makes it toasty.

What inspires you to create new yet classic and fresh cocktails?

M: I am still learning a lot about classic cocktails but there are so many niche ingredients that can make an amazing alternative to classic ingredients. Classic cocktails give you a basis to create something new while getting inspiration from local breweries.

What makes a Tokyo Confidential cocktail its own?

G: Everything’s high contrast. It’s so incoherent that it’s coherent. We wanted a contrast of Holly and Waka’s palette on the menu because we have opposite tastes in cocktails. For our first menu, we’re not doing a high concept, because we want Tokyo Confidential to tell the story. There are so many stories to tell about the bar that we don’t need to overload the customers.

What are your hopes for Tokyo Confidential in the coming months?

G: To be part of the community. To further the Tokyo bar community. And to be respected, especially within Japan. We are going to be something different, so I really hope people like it. Let’s have a good freaking time. And be excited about coming to work.

M: I definitely want to do something different with Tokyo Confidential. I want us to be someone who everyone would be interested in and curious about, so they come to see what it is all about for themselves. I hope it sparks curiosity.

Check out Tokyo Confidential on Instagram.