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Behind the Backbar at New York’s Bar Moga

In this round of "Anatomy of a Backbar," Frank Cisneros explains his approach to building one of the top Japanese whisky collections in the Western world.

“One of the first things I did was rip the front and backbar out,” says Frank Cisneros, consulting director of Bar Moga.

This wasn’t demolition to build a new space. Rather, it was a reboot of an existing bar in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, which had initially been billed as a cocktail bar inspired by 1920s-era Japan. But the drinks program and design, Cisneros felt, were off-base. Having recently returned from tending bar at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo, he had plans to bring Moga closer to the aesthetics of an authentic Japanese bar.

“The front bar in a New York cocktail bar is always full of syrups, spirits, little cheater bottles—all the tools are up front, like an apothecary,” he explains. In contrast, bars in Japan are more minimal. “The highlight is supposed to be the spirit; not all the things that go into preparing a drink.”

In keeping with that goal, Cisneros also decided to overhaul the spirits list, starting with the bar’s collection of Japanese whiskies, of which there were initially only two.

“When I came to Moga, one of the things that I noticed was that we had 16 tequilas and only two Japanese whiskies,” he recalls. “I thought that was a weird disconnect.” Within six weeks, he’d expanded that offering to include 40 selections—though the bar now has upwards of 50 bottles from Japan, making it one of the top collections in the Western world, claims Cisneros. “One of the top collections outside of Japan, anyway.”

While some of these whiskies double as cocktail ingredients (like the Mars Iwai and Hibiki Harmony, which Cisneros prefers for mixing), that’s often not the case, given that the collection contains a number of rarities. Not only has he stocked several now-discontinued limited-edition bottlings, like the Hakashu 12, through his contacts in Japan, Cisneros has been legally able to bid on and source bottles that other American bartenders might not have access to. He’s even managed to stock some bottles that are rarely seen in the U.S. at all, such as Ohishi Tokubetsu Reserve and Kurayoshi 12. (As for the rest, Cisneros says he relies on Skurnik Wines, whom he’s worked with for 12 years: “Skurnik imports 70 percent of everything that’s not Suntory or Nikka products,” he says.)

Needless to say, these hard-to-get whiskies aren’t intended for mixing in cocktails. But that doesn’t mean they should be consumed straight, either. “The Japanese do not drink whisky straight. Ever. It doesn’t happen,” says Cisneros, who always recommends some form of dilution, whether the whisky is used in a highball with plenty of mineral or sparkling water, or served over the bar’s hand-cut iceOverall, the collection spans from the affordable and mixable to special-occasion splurges—like the Yamazaki 18 Year Mizunara, priced at just under $250 a dram—to offerings from distilleries like Fukano and Ohishi, names that few Americans know. 

“To me, it’s like record collecting, my other hobby,” he says. “Every time someone says, you can’t get it—I say, Watch. I’ll get it.

Bar Moga in Five Bottles

The Yamazaki 12 Year

“If you want to know what Japanese whisky tastes like, this is it,” says Cisneros. “It’s what Beefeater is to gin in England—it’s the benchmark of whisky in Japan.” Made in the style of Highland Scotch, meaning it’s smooth and not highly peated, this whisky is “more Macallan than Laphroaig.” It’s also an allocated bottle that’s become relatively difficult to obtain; interest in age-statement whiskies from this distillery spiked across the board after critic Jim Murray proclaimed Yamazaki sherry-finished single malt as “the best in the world,” in November, 2014. What once might have been an ideal highball choice now retails for $150 and higher per bottle—if you can get it at all.

  • Price: $134
  • ABV: 43 percent

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt

This is a malt-forward, non-age-statement whisky, though Cisneros estimates that it likely contains whiskies aged from six to 12 years. “It’s a fantastic value,” he says. “It’s like one-fifth the price of Yamazaki 12 and it’s amazing, delicious.” Look for it in drinks like the Moga Cocktail, a Manhattan-like drink that starts with a Japanese whisky base and relies on plum brandy from Japan in place of vermouth.

  • Price: $64
  • ABV: 43 percent

Ichiro’s Malt Single Cask #1482

Ichiro Akuto is “one of the vanguards of whisky,” Cisneros says. This indie distiller famously resurrected his family’s Hanyu distillery after it burned down, having discovered about 50 casks that had survived the fire. (He’s now owner and master distiller for the Chichibu distillery, which is the successor to Hanyu.) Each of his single-cask bottlings are distinctive, and shaped by where in the distillery the cask rested. The 1482 is “a lucky, lucky bottle,” Cisneros says. “It’s really deeply rich, and drinks like a 25-year-old whisky.” It’s also released at cask strength, and “absolutely needs water,” he notes. Moga’s team carves ice into diamonds à la minute specifically for serving this dram.

  • ABV: 62 percent

Kurayoshi 12 Pure Malt

Cisneros describes this sherry-finished expression as “affordable, available and a great entry point to learn about the Japanese style of whisky.” This distillery blends stocks of Scottish whisky with Japanese-distilled whisky, then ages the blend in Japan. “Because there’s such a lack of Japanese whisky and incredible demand, distillers have had to be flexible to figure out how to meet demand,” he explains. “Yes, it’s not purely Japanese whisky, but it’s indicative of what it’s supposed to be.”

  • Price: $96
  • ABV: 46 percent

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky

“This is very close to my heart,” Cisneros says. “It was our well whisky at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo. Even there it was extravagant.” He describes the flavor as “very bourbon-like,” featuring vanilla and chocolate tones. Since it’s a grain whisky, it’s “very elegant and pretty,” compared to more robust malt whiskies. “It’s like the antithesis of most Japanese whiskies. I appreciate that it bucks the trend.”

  • Price: $63
  • ABV: 45 percent

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