Fresh powder, blown in from nearby Siberia, flanks either side of the small refrigerator door that serves as entrance to Bar Gyu+. Tucked away off the main road of the lower Hirafu village, Bar Gyu is one of the best cocktail bars in Japan and an enchanting portal from the cold winds into the warm heart of Japanese mixology. Maybe four feet tall - the door appears built into rockface. The owners, Ionna Morelli and Hirashi Wantabe, originally installed it without any expectation of the notoriety it would bring. “If the bar is going to be slow anyway, I might as well make the entrance as difficult to find as possible,” the menu explains. They never expected their unique entrance, the emblematic red refrigerator door, to capture the imagination of cocktail lovers worldwide. But arrive on a random winter night, and you’ll encounter a line long of parka wearing patrons queuing for Hokkaido’s best whiskey bar.
The Vibe Comparing the fridge to the wardrobe to Narnia is too easy, and frankly, inaccurate: The wardrobe took children into winter; the fridge door takes adults out of it.
Upon emerging from the vintage refrigerator door, you're welcomed into a world that seems larger on the inside. It’s an architectural trick. It works. The room feels cavernous… the illusion is heightened by the expanse of snow-dusted Japanese forests visible through the back wall of windows, juxtaposed against the intimate setting of candlelit wooden tables and the cozy bar that seats no more than 20 patrons. This captivating interior is as much a part of the Bar Gyu+ experience as the beverages it serves.
While you surrender yourself to the intricate world of Japanese spirits, a soundtrack of retro jazz records envelops the air, creating an ambiance that's akin to being in a soothing dream. As your senses delve deeper into the Bar Gyu+ journey, small plates of comfort snacks, such as shoyu garlic fried potatoes and chicken wings, serve as the perfect accompaniment.
Hand drawn menus list the handcrafted spirits. Each concoction is replicated in colored pencil and pen. “Local Whiskey Old Fashioned,” “Japanese Whiskey Sour,” “Northern Gin and Tonic” “Nikka Single Malt” and “Hibiki 17 Year. The finer offerings have their own pages which share insights on the distillers from which they came alongside the alcohol content and price… in the thousands of yen of course. Try the “Japanese Whiskey 101” tasting set of four.
Bar Gyu+ prides itself on its ever-evolving selection of single malts. Each season, the menu welcomes old and rare Japanese whiskeys, including sought-after choices like Karuizawa or Hanyu. Here, savoring whiskey isn't merely about tasting, it's about experiencing the story behind each drink, an adventure that might require a splurge of 22,000 yen ($201) for a shot.
For those that worship whiskey, Bar Gyu is a sanctuary: offering both protection from the elements and a place well worth the pilgrimage.
Photos from https://www.gyubar.com/ https://www.instagram.com/p/CjPnxZuOClf/