When the elevator dings open on the tenth floor of a high-rise in drab West Shinjuku, Tokyo, I don’t know quite what to expect. As the doors to the lift shut behind me, I find myself standing on a rickety outdoor staircase—solo—in the pitch black, fumbling for the handle to a heavy, lacquered wooden door. If this were a fairy tale, I think, I’d be in trouble.
I’ve come in search of Ben Fiddich, the much-ballyhooed bar from Hiroyasu Kayama, a star Tokyo bartender who has been heralded worldwide. Since 2013, Kayama’s fascination with the way the natural world—plants, spices, fruits—and liquor dance together has led him to break apart and rebuild spirits and liqueurs from the ground up (amaro and Campari, to name a couple) using herbs that he grows on his family farm on the outskirts of Tokyo.
He is, perhaps, the closest thing to a 21st-century alchemist.
I lean into the door and am greeted by even more darkness—though a softer kind, flecked by the warmth of candles. The size of a doctor’s office waiting room and shrouded in what I’ll call nouveau-Elizabethan decor set to a soundtrack of Renaissance music (lutes and all), Ben Fiddich feels more like ambling into a lost set piece from Labyrinth than a bar.
There are deep shelves packed with infusion-filled glass jars. There are too many oblong, oddly-sized carafes to count, each of them filled with experimental liqueurs. Bows of dried wormwood hang from wooden rafters next to the mounted head of a buck. A flock of absinthe spoons lean at ease next to a still life of yuzu and jujubue fruit.
I’m ushered into my place at the center of the small bar and, for a while, I sit alone.
The bar is steeped in magical thinking, and in my solitude it’s not difficult to imagine that the inanimate objects in the place might just have the ability to come to life and join me for a drink. After all, this would carry on the Japanese folklore tradition of tsukumogami, in which household items like umbrellas and vegetable graters are granted a kind of sentience after 100 years of use. For a second, I could’ve sworn a copper tin was inching closer.
“You’re ready, yes?” the eager bar back asks, and I nod.
With all the flourish of a maestro entering into the orchestra pit, Kayama emerges from a holding pen at the side of the bar, throwing back the curtains and taking his rightful place directly in front of my seat. He’s wearing the kind of white jacket frequently sported by Japanese bartenders, but his version of the ensemble feels a little different. Though the pocket square is pristine, there are stains of purple and green dotted up and down his torso, as if I’ve interrupted him in the middle of picking fresh berries or in the midst of a fantastical experiment. He exhales, grinning, with an eyebrow cocked.
“Whisky, gin, absinthe or amaro?”
These four spirits form the foundation of all Ben Fiddich’s cocktails, and while a no-menu policy is fairly standard in Japan, it soon becomes clear that every drink Kayama makes is almost completely off-the-cuff.
I opt for absinthe and watch as he pulls out a terracotta mortar and pestle to smash together absinthe, gin and unidentified fresh herbs, he plucks from a branch. He tastes and smells the drink-in-progress on the back of his hand intermittently as if sampling perfume, nodding with approval. After a good ten minutes of assembly, my absinthe drink—complete with honey, grapefruit juice and egg white that’s all been whipped together with an immersion blender—is frothed up perfectly in a chilled Art Deco glass hand-selected for the presentation.
As I go to take a photo of my drink, a single votive candle appears on an elegant, footed pewter stand just prior to the snap, then is quickly whooshed away by the bar back. It is this kind of old-world flair that routinely comes to the aid of the new at Ben Fiddich.
While nursing some of his homemade absinthe from a stemmed, thimble-sized glass, Kayama cracks open a yellowed French tome so well-worn the pages flutter loose from the binding. He quickly flips to a drawing of an antiquated machine—what appears to be an elaborate, whirly-gig-looking table-top still—pointing to the drawing, then an absinthe recipe on the next page over, then my glass.
“I used this to make what you’re drinking,” he says, referencing the contraption. “I don’t speak French, though, so I had to use Google to translate,” he laughs. “A little bit old, a little bit new.”