The SMWS has a range of fantastic partner bars around the world. In this interview taken from the April issue of Unfiltered, we take a look inside our partner bar in Kyoto, Japan – Bar Keller.

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the location of some of Japan’s best-preserved historic buildings, monuments and gardens, the ancient capital of Kyoto is a must-see destination. It also happens to be home to an outstanding Society partner bar, owned and operated by Minoru Nishida.

Nishida san, where did your passion for whisky come from?

When I was young and new to this business, a senior colleague gave me a glass of Cardhu 12 year old and it was mindboggling. That was the exact moment my whisky career began. Now I believe that learning whisky is through actual experience, which is drinking, rather than reading books. After realising that, I travelled a lot and saw many bars around the world where great whiskies are served and I’m still trying to find opportunities to learn more about whisky. The journey is endless.

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Bar Keller’s design is amazing –where did the concept come from?

I designed it as if we were in a whisky cask. The counter is created with cask wood and light from the ceiling cascades down through bottles of whisky. I built this place because I’d like customers to feel we are in a cask, slowly maturing together just as whisky does. Throughout my entire career I was always thinking: “If I opened my own whisky bar, what would it be like?” Bar Keller is the answer. This is the bar I was dreaming about.

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Describe your collection of Society bottlings

We now have over 300 bottles, which I’ve been collecting for more than 20 years, so that includes some old bottlings. A recommendation from recent releases is Cask No. 3.242: Surreal lunch with a mermaid. It reminds me of the old style of this distillery and is very curious. I feel that some recent Society releases have aromas and flavours reminiscent of the late 1990s, which I like, so I’m focusing on those bottlings at the moment.

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You have developed your own style of oyuwari (whisky with hot water); can you explain the philosophy behind it?

Generally, making oyuwari is adding hot water to whisky in the glass. However, my oyuwari is different. First of all, I make mizuwari (whisky with cold water), then warm it up. This is critical, because if you add hot water to cold whisky, it releases an unpleasant and unbalanced smell of ethanol due to the sudden change in temperature. I don’t like that so I created my own method to avoid it by measuring the correct strength and using a traditional Japanese kettle called a joga.

Strength is the most important factor in making oyuwari. We use a “scale”, which measures abv when first making the mizuwari. The target strength is between 12.5 and 14 per cent, depending on the whisky’s flavour profile.

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I fill the joga with the mizuwari and heat it slowly. The joga is made in Kyushu and is used locally for making hot shochu, a Japanese distilled spirit. It is well designed for the job – it warms the liquid slowly and equally. That means the whisky’s sweet aroma emerges first, which I think you will sense and enjoy.

Normally oyuwari can be delicious at first but as the temperature falls, it can gradually go flat and become a flavourless and worthless liquid. To enjoy our oyuwari in perfect condition, we serve it in a small glass, normally used for sake, and also use a small candle to maintain the temperature of the whisky in the joga.

This way we remove any unappetising dryness that oyuwari made in the normal way can have, instead bringing out the sweetness and richness of the whisky.

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Who comes to your bar?

We now have approximately 250 members. In addition to that, we welcome every Society member, which means 250 plus 25,000 SMWS members in the world are also members of Bar Keller.

Bar Keller is on the ground floor of Val’s Building, 481 Higashi-iru, Kiyamachi, Nijo, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan. Tel: +81 75-255-5009. * Many thanks to Hiroyuki Ogata for both translation and photography

The Society has partner bars around the world. If you can’t make it to Kyoto, find your nearest partner bar here.