The menu at The Nihon Whiskey Lounge is compact: eight pages of single-spaced, small type, whiskeys, starting with Japan and moving on to Scotland and then the rest of the world. It’s impressive, and they put all those bottles to good use, literally decorating the room with them, using them like building blocks to fill surface space. It gives the small, warm, room a palette that is both practical and engaging, and I was pleased to pull up to the bar and admit to my artist-with-a-tech-job friend David that I know nothing about Japanese whiskey.
“Oh,” David said. “So this is really going to be your first time, then?”
“Sort of. I mean, I’ve had them, I just don’t know anything about them. This is the beginning of my concerted effort to learn something.” I’m overdue on this, frankly. In the last few years, Japanese whiskeys have increasingly seen by connoisseurs as overtaking scotch as the standard to beat.
“Well, this is really important, then, because your first time sets your expectations for everything that comes next,” David said.
I once had a girlfriend who used to say the same thing about sex: make your first time count, because you come to expect whatever it is you get. It’s probably true.
“Do you know anything about Japanese whiskey?” I asked David.
He considered, and pointed at a bottle on a shelf behind the bar. “A group of hackers once gave me that bottle there, I think, after I let them crash at my place for a while. It was pretty good!”
“I guess we’re in for an adventure.” And yet, the bartender wasn’t interested in talking me through the experience, and I didn’t see anything like a flight on the menu. I’m so used to places that want to share their obsessions with you – wine bars that love to talk about wine, rum bars that love to talk about rum, cigar bars that love to talk about cigars – that I’m caught flat footed to discover that Nihon has no interest in educating me at all.
“Can we do a flight?” I finally asked. “Can you do that for us?”
“Sure,” he said. “I can do that. Three glasses each? Four?”
We went with four.
David and I tried to make small talk, but it’s hard because we’re both having trouble imagining our futures. I was in that state of Burning Man preparedness where I didn’t want to talk about Burning Man but couldn’t think of anything else. David, meanwhile, had recently moved and recently broken up and had no idea what happens next.
“I am taking a trip to Hong Kong, though,” he said. “With a German Tinder date.”
Turns out the last time he was in Germany, he went on a Tinder date. “Now she’s going to Hong Kong and wanted company, so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go.’”
I had questions, but he clearly didn’t want to talk about it, and past experience has taught me that I just have to accept that David’s love life is like this. I’ve been told that a girl he once met at a festival tracked him down and got a mutual friend to deliver her to David’s apartment, tied up and naked in the trunk of his car. That was their first date.
We have come to expect very different things from the world, he and I. I wondered what his first time was like.
The bartender, who had been taking his time, started pouring but didn’t have much to say about what we were drinking beyond what we could read off the bottles. We drank the Yamazaki 12 single malt (light bodied, slightly sweet, a little sharp, mostly one-note), the Yoichi single malt (Deeper bodied and slightly earthy, though still in the lightly sweet realm. David’s favorite), the Kurayoshi sherry cask (fuller bodied with definite sherry flavor and light oakiness), and the Ichiro malt chichibu peated three year (my favorite, the boldest, peaty-est, and the most complex of the bunch). I had no context for anything we were drinking until I looked them all up at home.
“You know the thing about these?” David said. “Is that it’s like they’re trying to be inoffensive. I like some better than others, but there’s nothing about any of them that somebody’s going to object to.”
“Oh, that’s sharp,” I said. “That’s exactly right. They’re all easy drinking in that way … ”
“I don’t mean that negatively,” he added. “They’re like muzak, and I think that’s an art form. It takes real talent and skill to fade into the background.”
Somehow this leads us into a long discussion of stand-up comedy, and anti-comedy, and the way in which Steve Martin earned his reputation by deliberately screwing up comic tropes, and Andy Kauffman was always looking for a way to make the audience uncomfortable — which is what David thinks he’d like to do if he were a stand-up comic.
“Learn how to make them laugh first,” I suggest, “then you can make them uncomfortable.”
Nihon has a very attractive, if pricey-looking, food menu, and we would have ordered sushi if it hadn’t taken the bartender so long to get back around to asking us, but by then we both had places to be, so we asked to settle up.
A moment later the bill came – just under $150 for two flights of whiskey. We were stunned.
“It seems odd that he wouldn’t have warned us that we were going that high,” David said. “I mean, you’d started this by saying you had no idea what you were doing, that seems like it crosses the threshold where somebody should say ‘this is about what it will cost, are you good with this?’”
But it wasn’t really the price tag that was getting to us. I’ve paid about that much for a single flight of great bourbon and was happy about it. I’ve had bar tabs significantly higher than that which I never regretted because they were part of a night where magic happened.
This had been neither of those things. They were four perfectly adequate pours of well-crafted whiskey that I will never think of again, precisely because they were so smooth as to be inoffensive. I can see why people admire it, and I have much more to learn, but I don’t think this is my scene. The first time I ever sampled good whiskey, it was thunder and lightning, and that’s what I’ve been looking for ever since.