Japan: Part 3 – Osaka
Inside an innocuous bar located in a quiet, remote area far away from the hustle of downtown Osaka, an ancient jukebox cheerfully blasts "It ain't me - it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one, no". A drunk group of Japanese coworkers sing along in broken English while downing shots of whiskey chased with handfuls of nuts and chips. Other solitary Japanese salarymen sit quietly in the smoke-filled tavern, studying the wall of whiskeys and puffing away at their cigarettes.
This is Rogin's Tavern. A temple to American whiskey and 70's culture.
The owner, Seiichiro Tatsumi, has been diligently accumulating American whiskey for over 30 years – and his quest has resulted in so many journeys through Tennessee and Kentucky that he was bestowed the honor of a colonel title in Kentucky, proudly stated on his business card.
Our journey to Rogin's bar began slowly. Of the two young bartenders, only one spoke a little bit of English. Through cringe-inducing attempts at Japanese, we managed to order pours of Wild Turkey 13 yr and The Arran Malt 18 yr. We sat, transfixed, not knowing exactly how to interact, sipping our whiskies and studiously perusing the collection of whiskies and American memorabilia, noting the food menus that listed classic Southern cuisine: fried chicken, chili, cheesecake, onion rings... and for some reason, tacos.
We ventured again to try to talk to the bartender, asking for recommendations on a peaty whisky and recommendations on American bourbon in halting and terrible Jangrish. To our amazement, he understood. Bottles were selected from the shelves and lined up, from least expensive to most, of differently-aged bottles of Ardberg, Caol Ila, Bowmore, and Lagavulin for peat and of Rock Hill, Knob Creek, Old Grand-dad, Very Old Barton, and W.L. Weller.
Having never encountered the Lagavulin 8 year (stores typically carry the 16 year), we ordered a pour and a pour of the old Granddad. The Lagavulin was surprisingly sweet and very subtle peaty, while the Old Grandad was supremely easy-to-drink. Our next rounds included the Coal Ila 1996 (smelled potent like Chinese rice liquor but sweeter – with spicy, briny, and peaty notes), Bowmore Mashmen's Selection (very hot! with butterscotch and tobacco flavors), and Rock Hill Farms (tasted like vanilla extract with some oak thrown in). The prices were reasonable – the Mashmen's Selection auctions for $160-220 and our pour was around $27.
A few whiskeys under our belt, we felt good and started singing along to some Bob Dylan now humming along on the jukebox. Our bartender, taking pity on our Japanese, pulled out an English guide to Osaka for us to read while drinking our drams. We thumbed through it and landed on the classifieds, filled with desperate posts by Japanese men and foreign men, looking for foreign women and Japanese women, respectively, with enticing promises such as English lessons in exchange for sex.
After finding a page of basic Japanese phrases for foreigners, such as "you are very cool", we started to randomly selecting a phrase and testing them out on our bartender and neighboring drinking friends. We told them where we were from and what we had studied at university.
Eventually the conversation turned to Northern California and electrical engineering when a dapper, elderly Japanese gentleman came over and in perfect English inquired: "Do you know Robert Sinclair?"
This is when our night turned from awesome to magical.
The gentleman was the owner himself, Colonel Seiichiro Tatsumi. After hearing confirmation that I did know of Robert Sinclair (the famous electrical engineering professor), who also happened to be a close friend and former classmate of Tatsumi-san, he settled down at a bar stool near us to introduce himself and chat.
Over the next few hours our wide ranging conversation bounced from Japan, around the American South, and to the history of Tatsumi's bar. The land has been in Tatsumi's family's hands for generations. For the last few generations the establishment has been a bar, but in its previous life it was a highway hotel, and even a brothel run by his grandmother. The family has since then turned toward the more benign spectrum of hospitality. One of his daughters, Yui Gibson Tatsumi, now resides in Scotland and owns the the Mussel & Steak Bar located in Edinburgh, Scotland.
After chatting for a while, Tatsumi-san recommended we visit the second and third floors of his bar. The second floor contained a relatively empty bar with a solo bartender and a drunk Japanese middle-aged woman with her head laid on the bar and a hand clutching a cocktail glass. The third floor contained... by our estimation, probably about a quarter million dollars worth of whiskey.
The third floor is styled like an old Western saloon and is a treasure trove of rare whiskies, including bottles of ancient Pappy Van Winkle, dusty bottles of the original Jack Daniel's Gold Medal Old. 7, and a 1849 bottle of Fitzgerald's. Some of the bottles have been acquired when Tatsumi-san was younger - others have been purchased through auctions. Graffiti-ed around the walls on both the second and third floors are also autographs of many of Tatusumi-san's master distiller friends.
We lingered on the third floor for quite a while before realizing that we probably couldn't even afford a single dram of the whiskies on display - and that they probably were not for sale anyway. Hunkering back down to the first floor, we polished off a few more drams and even sampled a Manhattan cocktail (stick to the whiskies) before bidding adieu to Tatsumi-san and his magical bourbon vault.