If you’ve had your ears to the ground, you’ve already heard the names “Kayama San” and “Bar BenFiddich” do the rounds. We caught up with Kayama-San on a recent trip to Tokyo and without mincing our words, let’s just say he’s all that and more.
Walking into BenFiddich is a bit like walking into a sanctum to get ordained. That’s how I felt anyway. As I took my seat at the centre of this beautiful bar, I felt like a privileged member of the audience who was there to watch Kayama-San wield his wand like a wizard in his den. Watching him at work is oddly satisfying as he holds your attention when he’s speaking with you and then lures your gaze into his swift movements as he builds your drink with incredible flair. The hushed voices in the room make way for the lush sounds of bottle corks popping, ice cubes dancing in mixing glasses, herbs being crushed in rustic troughs, and liquid being poured into curious glassware that has been carefully picked to round up each drink.
Kayama-San has an equally diligent team of young men and women who know the drinks and processes like the bank of their hand. While it may appear as though they don’t do much of the drink-making themselves, their involvement in the process is critical – much like the cogs that make the wheel turn, if you will.
BenFiddich is a quiet sanctuary tucked away in the heart of Toyko’s bustling Shinjuku district. Away from the neon lights, the blaring arcade music, the hordes of people flocking the streets, this feels like the sweet relief you never knew you needed.
Kayama-San was raised agrarian and farming has always been a way of life. He proudly grows his produce on a patch of land and employs the yield to make stunning concoctions for unsuspecting guests. This farm to table approach has caught the attention of many. The back bar is a curious library of little jars that are home to a plethora of herbs and spices. It’s not every day that you sip leisurely on a drink crafted with homegrown vermouth or let your taste buds dance to the tune of home made absinthe. Kayama San’s choice of ingredients to throw into his mixing trough is by no means “normal”, so if you’re expecting a good old traditional mix of flavours in your glass, think again.
Kayama-San has travelled the world extensively and has a penchant for flavours and ingredients unheard of. His travels have taken him to countries he looks to for inspiration, with India topping that list for its rich history, spices, culture, Buddhism, and shared roots with Japan. When asked where he would like to open another bar if he could, India was the obvious choice.
A family man, Kayama-San wants to leave behind a legacy, to be inherited by his three children who apparently aspire to be bartenders as well. He plans to work behind the bar for the rest of his life and has absolutely no retirement plans.
There is a peculiar eccentricity that trickles through that strainer – one that is equal parts modest and flamboyant. The intent isn’t to shock or impress but simply to push boundaries and go beyond the tried and tested. It is always an absolute pleasure to be able to sit at one of the world’s most highly ranked bars and have the bartender make you a drink that knocks off the pretension and keeps the heart and soul. There is nothing ostentatious about this experience but there is great theatre, and I have to admit it is compelling and spellbinding.
BenFiddich is a mecca for the curious mind and palate. Go there with an open mind because if you’re looking for familiarity and comfort, you’ve got another thing coming.
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