If not for a long-lost article extolling the virtues of Wild Turkey in the late 1980s, Yu Sumiyoshi might never have discovered whiskey. But a well-placed feature caught the 19-year-old Yu’s attention and, after receiving his monthly salary, he headed to the city of Fukuoka’s notorious Oyafukodori to find a bar that would serve him the mysterious liquor.
“That first experience was terrible,” Yu recalls as he carefully attaches a pair of lapel pins to his white bar jacket. “Wild Turkey was described as this ‘man’s whiskey’ to be drunk neat. That’s what I ordered and when I had it in my hand I realized I didn’t know how to drink it. So I drank it in one.”
A slight grimace flashes across his face before he continues. “It was a pretty high-end bar and it had this respectful, quiet atmosphere. I was completely taken aback by the strength of the drink and ended up spraying it out of my mouth across the bar. When I saw everyone looking at me, I grabbed the check and ran.”
Fast-forward 30 years and, perhaps unexpectedly given that first encounter, Yu is now the owner of Fukuoka’s Bar Leichhardt. The bar will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Aug. 8, but the interior has a certain timelessness to it. Its long camphor wood counter is spotless and appears a deep, iridescent brown under the soft lighting. The atmosphere is infectiously cozy and somehow seems immediately familiar. At Bar Leichhardt, whiskey is king.
Yu has a collection of over 3,000 bottles of whiskey, 1,500 of which stand behind the bar, while the rest remain in storage, each one tested and catalogued. Yu’s fascination stems from the huge differences across brands and ages, and while 3,000 bottles may like seem a lot, there is currently almost no limit to his pursuit. Could he do a blind tasting test and distinguish each bottle? Perhaps not, but it’s the range that enthralls him.
I ask Yu about the first whiskey he remembers enjoying. With deft precision he produces a bottle of Glenmorangie scotch from the wall of bottles behind him. “It’s a mild whiskey,” he says, “very easy to drink with a floral aroma. Compared to bourbon it’s a much softer taste and mixes beautifully with a few drops of water.” The bottle disappears back into the collection and is replaced with something slightly darker. “This is a bottle of Bushmills. It’s got similar characteristics to the Glenmorangie, but it’s from Ireland’s oldest whiskey distillery. It was another early favorite.”
His knowledge is comprehensive and, for customers, this translates to a revolutionary drinking experience. Fluent in English from six years living in Sydney (the bar is named after Leichhardt, the suburb of Sydney in which he lived), Yu can recall the particulars of every bottle behind the bar and offer recommendations as to how each can be best enjoyed.
If you know your fix, you can order a whiskey to your specification, but the more enjoyable option is to discuss with Yu, who can suggest a whiskey based on your tastes and budget (the top whiskeys sell for upwards of ¥50,000 a glass, but most come in at around the ¥1,000 mark).
The drink is served in elegant nosing glasses designed by the late Italian whiskey bottler Silvano Samaroli to bring out the spirit’s aromatic subtleties. The glass is accompanied by two smaller vessels of water, one used for cleaning the pallet and the other for diluting the whiskey. The minutiae with which Yu concerns himself extends to the quality of the water, which is imported from the World Heritage-recognized Kumano region of Mie Prefecture and selected especially for its softness.
For the uninitiated, he guides the drinking process: “First, swill the glass and bring it to your nose to take in the aroma. Take a sip neat, and then see how the taste changes with the addition of just a little water.” He observes from across the bar and wears an easy smile when he sees a customer enjoying their drink.
Yu’s mastery resulted in him being awarded the Taketsuru Top Whiskey Ambassador of the Year for 2013-4 and then, in 2015, to be named a Taketsuru Senior Ambassador. The award is presented by Nikka Whisky and named after its founder, Masataka Taketsuru, the chemist who opened Japan’s first whiskey distillery in 1923.
Beside the prestige of being named an ambassador, Yu was invited to fill his own whiskey cask at Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries and will be presented with his own bottle once the whiskey has matured.
For all his expertise, Yu has yet to visit Scotland, whiskey’s homeland. A future trip is on the cards, but only when he can find the time to step away from the world of Japanese whiskey.
Until that day comes, however, he can be found serving his beloved drink at Bar Leichhardt.
For more information about Bar Leichhardt, visit www.bit.ly/2hq0EJh.