A tribute to Bar:Colon

16 02 2011

(Head straight to the bottom of the post if you’re after Bar:Colon’s location/contact/website/etc.)

Those of us inclined to crapulence often fantasise about the perfect bar. At least I imagine others do; I certainly spent enough time doing so. And I say “spent” because I believe I’ve already encountered my perfect bar, or something very much resembling it.

From April 2009, for a period of about 10 months, I lived in the southern Japanese city of Kumamoto as an exchange student in my third year of university. At the commencement of Golden Week I’d emerged from the starting blocks a little too fervently, ending up a fraction worse for wear than I had expected, not to mention giving myself a subconjunctival hemorrhage in the process (click the link for some terrifying pictures of eyeballs). This was unfortunate, as an old accomplice of innumerable sozzled evenings and other disorderly mayhem from my earlier days in Tokushima was coming to visit. On his second night in Kumamoto I declined his invitation to trawl the downtown area for watering holes, however, later in the evening I received a message on my phone. It was a picture of a bar signboard saying “Bar:Colon”, accompanied by my friend’s comment of “nuff said”.

Not a chance we were going to let that slide. This presented us with an opportunity to carry on in the most puerile manner about entering the colon, wondering how many people could fit in the colon, discussing whether the colon had a brown interior, and a miscellany of other comments testifying to our sophisticated and erudite characters – all whilst blundering around town trying to rediscover the location of Bar:Colon the following night.

Diving into any given bar in Japan can be a bit of a gamble. You could be slugged with a seating charge, a charge for the snacks you thought were complimentary, a charge for the hostess who you thought was just a tap jockey, or end up generally paying an exorbitant (or extortionate) amount for what seemed like a couple of beers. Of course, you could ask if there are any such charges, but let’s face it, no one wants to look like a miserly skinflint. Then there’s also that unspoken belief that states, “If you have to be asking these sorts of things then you probably shouldn’t be here”.

All these trepidations were dashed by the time we’d parked our arses at the Bar:Colon counter, filled to nearly-overflowing with hundreds of liquor bottles (predominantly whisky) that didn’t fit on the shelves. The bartender handed us each a rolled-up oshibori, a moistened towelette. Something felt very comfortable about the venue; very intimate and clearly dedicated to the art of drink, but also relaxed, and not at all stuffy like a number of other bars where you’re petrified of ordering the wrong tipple, laughing too loud or leaving a fingerprint on the finely-polished counter.

I’m actually at a loss to remember my first drink order at Bar:Colon beyond the fact that it was a whisky, although it may have been a Yoichi single malt. The man administering the amber manna introduced himself as Takeshi, and asked us how we managed to end up at his establishment this particular evening. My friend answered outright, “The name, Bar:Colon… it’s a little unusual”. Apparently Takeshi was aware of the English meaning of “colon” in the physiological sense, although he was after a name with a slight contemporary flair, hence styled the bar name after the punctuation mark featured in all internet URLs. Regardless, we persisted with our infantile quips until the well had truly run dry.

Takeshi igniting a glass of Pernod absinthe. Absinthe connoisseurs say you shouldn’t light it on fire. Then again, I’ve never been one to listen to self-professed bohemian types who have funny moustaches and revel in wearing ill-fitting rags. Not that I like to stereotype or discriminate, or anything.

A number of customers rolled in and stumbled out over the course of the evening. One particular fellow, with whom I am still in contact to this day, spoke particularly good English and was a regular face until his job took him to greyer pastures in Tokyo. Takeshi eventually let slip of a special Bar:Colon deal whereby you could have all the Johnnie Walker Black Label you could drink for 1000 yen ($12USD) as long as you took it neat with no mixer nor chaser. Had I been even more of a dedicated souse, this could have been financially ruinous for him given my affection for this particular blended Scotch. Only on one occasion do I recall visiting his bar without taking him up on this deal. At present I’m no longer certain as to whether this sublime arrangement with the Striding Man from Kilmarnock is still in place.

My whisky-related Japanese vocabulary was (and still is) disappointingly meager, but we managed to talk at length about our favourite drams. Takeshi showed me some photos of his visit to Scotland. Broaching the topic of glassware, he picked out a Glencairn whisky glass from behind the counter, etched with The Glenrothes logo, and wrapped it up in newspaper for me to take home along with an Ardbeg drink muddler. My friend elaborated on the current crop of sumo talent, expressing his fondness for the 265kg behemoth Yamamotoyama Ryuta. Takeshi rifled through a stack of papers, producing a banzuke for the upcoming sumo tournament featuring Yamamotoyama’s name, and handed it over as a small souvenir. We each also received a Suntory Kakubin bottle keychain, which plays an old whisky jingle when the cap is pressed down. Rarely had I experienced this kind of hospitality and generosity in such a situation.

We eventually sauntered back to our two-wheeled iron steeds. My university dormitory had a socially crippling midnight curfew, which could theoretically be circumvented by “signing out” for the night, although the overnight caretaker never appreciated being awoken by rowdy and thoroughly sauced exchange students at 3:00am. Nevertheless, it was an occurrence that he was all too familiar with, and I was certainly no slouch at playing my part in this recurring ritual.

Another refined and sensible night in at Bar:Colon.

For the remainder of my time in Kumamoto I visited Bar:Colon on a regular basis, and was treated extremely well by Takeshi and everyone else who frequented the venue. If the bar was quiet he’d close down for anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours, and haul me around to numerous other magnificent hideaways where he’d treat me to a drink or a snack. Particularly memorable was one evening when the conversation turned to things that could be steeped in liquor. Takeshi made a phone call, and barely a minute later he was dragging my English roommate and I out the door and into a nearby izakaya, where the owner pulled out a bottle of Suntory Kakubin whisky in which a small viper had been stewing for about four years. We were each poured a shot, accompanied by one of the snake’s organs placed at the bottom of the glass. Thankfully, after spending some time pickling away in alcohol, whatever venom was left behind in the snake had evidently lost its potency.

(Above is one of many videos on YouTube of Takeshi, in this one he’s discussing whisky trivia, such as the differing spellings of “whisky” and “whiskey”.)

Another great outing was to the local Suntory brewery, where The Premium Malts is brewed. Apparently this trip was Suntory’s gesture of appreciation to the Kumamoto Bar Society after they’d collectively purchased and bottled a cask of Hakushu 10 for a special “Kumamoto Bartender’s Choice” release, an event they managed to turn into a full-length documentary film. Foregoing a meeting with a representative of a local elementary school where I was scheduled to present a talk a few weeks later (the talk went down rather splendidly, if I may say so… I just have priorities) I accepted Takeshi’s invitation to accompany the group out to the brewery. A morning tour was accompanied by a remarkably civilised tasting session, followed by obscene amounts of beer with a barbecue lunch.

Such recollections, whilst standing as fondly-remembered testaments to one of the most tremendous guys I’ve ever met, are a mere fraction of the abundance of memories I possess of spending time in Bar:Colon itself; encountering a enthralling array of characters, such as the doctor who invited me to his home for dinner with his family, or the woman who was so utterly blotto she was convinced my name was “Mash”. Then there were those nights of blasting out new wave on the stereo when nobody else was around. Trying Johnnie Walker Black Label from a half-gallon bottle that was older than I am. Getting pied in the face on my birthday (or anyone else’s birthday, for that matter). Cognac tasting sessions, and being sent home with a complimentary bottle. Impromptu flamenco dancing demonstrations. I could drag this out extensively, as you can probably imagine.

Takeshi getting, uh, creamed in the face.

By the time it had come for me to leave Kumamoto, Takeshi was preparing to move Bar:Colon into a slightly roomier locale. I missed the opening night by a week, made all the more agonising by the fact that he was planning to open a 4.5 litre bottle of Ardbeg Mor for the occasion. Anyway, I was sent off with a grand multi-course, multi-booze feast at a nearby izakaya, attended by the Bar:Colon regulars, and then of course, one last round of drinks at the bar where it all began. Without wanting to sound excessively schmaltzy (or too much of a degenerate barfly), this place was my home-away-from-home in Kumamoto, and whilst I was looking forward to returning to Australia, having to say farewell to Takeshi and Bar:Colon was a mournful affair indeed.

Thus, I am ruined for other bars. Shoddy decor, heinous drink prices, impersonal service, abominably offensive and/or intrusive music, stagnant atmosphere, loathsome patrons; I sit there in petulance, quietly reeling off a list of grievances about whatever contemptible dive I’ve chanced upon. (Perhaps I ought to be a touch more discriminating in my choice of drinking establishments, given my indiscriminate willingness to drink any old gut-rot at times…) Melbourne has a profusion of outstanding bars – and I certainly don’t go to them expecting freebies from the owner – but I’m yet to come across one that echoes the intimacy and warmth of Bar:Colon.

I’m aiming to return to Japan sometime in 2012 for a brief visit, as I’ve been invited to participate in the 25th anniversary concert of a Kumamoto taiko drumming group that I joined during my time as an exchange student. I’m hoping there won’t be any early-morning starts, as it’s unlikely I’ll be in any state to deal with loud drums and intense physical activity with a prodigious hangover. No prizes for guessing where I’ll have been the previous night.

Myself with the man himself.

Here’s to Bar:Colon – kanpai! 絶対にまた一緒に飲もう。

Bar:Colon info

Website and contact details – http://www.barcolon.com/

Access map – http://bar-navi.suntory.co.jp/shop/0963566652/coupon_map.html

Bar:Colon blog – http://barcolon.seesaa.net/

Kumamoto Bar Society – http://www.ku-bs.jp/ (also featuring information on Kumamoto Bartender’s Choice Hakushu 10 including videos, plus a list of other great bars in Kumamoto)

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One for the road

1 02 2011

I took a break from my usual Australia Day activities of bellowing moronic chants and muttering obscenities about immigrants taking over our way of life – besides, my “LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT” t-shirt was in the wash – and went on a road trip to the town of Daylesford. Foregoing the usual enticement of the region’s mineral spas (as much as I like a soak, it’s not easy to be excited about these things once you’ve experienced the glory of a Japanese onsen), a small group of us checked out a handful of the town’s attractions.

Lunch – in my case, a brilliant but ever-so-slightly inadequate serving of pan-fried gnocchi – was summarily devoured at Breakfast and Beer. If you have a look at the website you’ll see that the beer list is extensive and impressive, although in actuality the fridge (which appeared to also serve as the beer menu) appeared to contain a far smaller variety. Nevertheless, to my surprise they stocked a variety of the excellent Hitachino Nest Beers from the Kiuchi Brewery in Japan. Whilst living in Japan I rarely had the opportunity to try local beers beyond the hodgepodge of Asahi/Sapporo/Kirin/etc., as the Japanese palate generally steers towards brews that are as clear, clean, crisp, and generally inoffensive as possible. There are a respectable number of craft breweries out there in all corners of Japan producing a wide variety of beers, often unique, although for a lack of a large market willing to diversify their beer-swilling habits (and perhaps due to a handful of microbrewers’ desires to keep their products as fresh as possible at the time of consumption) they’re not easily available – at least not in Kumamoto or Tokushima, the two Japanese cities in which I’ve lived. So, imagine my surprise when, at this little restaurant and beer garden in Daylesford, I come across a bottle of Rising Sun Pale Ale from Baird Beer in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Rising Sun Pale Ale

How many Japanese cliches can you (mis)appropriate into a single beer label?

Not a bad drop at all. A great reddish-coppery colour, decent head, with some citric/tarty fruit and a sensible amount of hops on the palate. The finish had a satisfying touch of bitterness, although not quite as bitter as being walloped with a $14 charge for the drink. I suppose this is what you get for ordering straight out of the fridge, but to me it seems a little unscrupulous for an establishment such as this to not have a booze menu with prices. The alternative is to lay siege to the poor waitress with a dozen queries over the prices of drinks that take your fancy, and subsequently wasting everyone’s time and prolonging the unbearable wait until the moment when beer meets mouth.

Anyway, our day continued on with a visit to the Daylesford Cider Company, despite the waitress at the previous establishment mumbling something about their ciders being a “bit shit”. In the parking lot was a battered ute (“pickup truck” in Americanese) bearing the Victorian license plate “CIDER”, so I figured they must take their cider rather seriously. Traditionalists they were, as none of the ciders were carbonated. It was the first time I’d ever tried a still cider (drinking previously-bubbly cider left to go flat doesn’t count… or does it?), and whilst it was certainly interesting, I still prefer my ciders slightly sparkling. Out of the sweet, standard and dry varieties, I preferred the acidic and astringent feel of the dry cider, and picked up two bottles to take home. After the cidery we hit up a local chocolate factory, the name of which I’ve forgotten because I’ve already thrown out the packaging after gobbling down everything I bought within the space of 24 hours.

To bring things back full-circle (when I do this it inevitably leads to alcohol and/or Japan) there seems to be a Japanese pastime of hauling the family or your friends into the car and driving off to some remote part of the prefecture in order to try a bit of the local produce. It’s definitely something I could get used to doing here in Australia.





D-I-Y umeshu

3 01 2011

Of the collective two-and-a-half years I’ve spent living in Japan, one of my regrets (I’ve had a few…) is not having a crack at making umeshu. As the mercury begins to nudge toward some rather unpleasant summer temperatures, made all the worse by the vile humidity, the supermarkets start to sell all the ingredients and gear you need to make umeshu at home – generally speaking, a bag of unripe ume , a bag of white rock sugar, a huge carton of white spirit (or sometimes brandy) specifically made for D-I-Y homemade hooch, and a jar into which you throw all the ingredients. (For a fantastically informative blog post showing how it’s done properly, check this out).

Anyway, pretty much none of this shit is available in Australia.

Well, sure, you can find huge jars, but it’s difficult to come across the specific type of double-lid jars they like to use for umeshu. And, well, yes, I suppose you can find white rock sugar, but being a neurotic pedant of sorts, I was after a Japanese brand, which appears to be unavailable here. And the Japanese-made white spirits? Forget about it.

The greatest nuisance of all is that Australia appears to be virtually devoid of commercially available ume. I asked around at Japanese grocers, I called up orchards, I searched online. Nothing. I even downloaded a 124-page report titled “Development of Prunus mume, a new tree crop for Australia” (Prunus mume is the scientific name for the tree which bears the ume fruit) written by some egghead botanists from the Australian Government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. I probably should’ve got in touch with those folks to ask them if there had been any developments since the publication of the report in March 2007, although in all likelihood they would have been busy getting their jollies talking about stamens and carpels with other flora junkies.

BUT!… it turns out, after trawling through some ethnobotany forums, that an unripe apricot isn’t all that dissimilar from the particular type of ume used to make umeshu. So, what the hell, I thought I’d give it a go. I grabbed a few bags of unripe apricots from Prahran Markets, getting ripped off in the process due to it being the very start of the apricot season, then bought a 1.25L bottle of Smirnoff vodka and a 750mL bottle of mugi-shochu (a 25%abv Japanese spirit made from wheat), and an assortment of different sugars – white sugar, light muscovado sugar, and black Japanese rock sugar. I also incorporated a bottle of Bacardi white rum which had been lying around in my liquor cupboard, unwanted and unused – and deservedly so – for a number of years. I’m yet to come across an umeshu recipe that mentions rum, but I figured a little experimentation couldn’t hurt. Finally, I picked up some shitty jars at one of those shops that sell a plethora of cheap and tacky homewares.

I made three different batches:

Jar 1: Smirnoff, mugi-shochu, white sugar.

Jar 2: Smirnoff, Japanese black rock sugar.

Jar 3: Bacardi white, mugi-shochu, muscovado sugar.

 

Gotta love drug company freebies, especially Post-It notes. Imigran can be used to treat migraines, so I may very well need a handful of them after drinking this crap. And I know it's a poor photo - I'm sorry - but I'll post up a better one once the booze has matured a little.

The jars really are shoddy, turns out they don’t even seal properly, hence all the layers of cling-wrap.

Most umeshu recipes recommend steeping the fruits in the liquid for a period of at least six months, although apparently this period of time can be shortened when using vodka. I made them on November 16, so perhaps I’ll give them at little taste in mid-February, then declare it open season on May 16. If any of them turn out to be a success, I’ll whip up enough to kill a small army next apricot season. Regardless of the results, you’ll be hearing about them here.

One final nit-picking point I’d like to make is that the word “umeshu” is frequently, and incorrectly, translated into English as “plum wine”. Ume are not plums, nor is umeshu a wine – it’s a liqueur. Best to just call it “umeshu”, as “a liqueur made from an Asian fruit which is somewhat similar to an unripe apricot” is a little unwieldy for a label.





New make spirit

1 01 2011

A new blog for a new year.

のんだくれ (nondakure) – drunkard; piss-artist

I’m of the opinion that names are given to you by those around you. As such, I’ve never been comfortable with using any sort of whimsical self-bestowed pseudonym.

One evening in late 2009, whilst sitting in a bar in Kumamoto with my friend and bartender, Takeshi, watching another bartender friend fronting a cover band tearing through songs by The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Vanilla Fudge, Shocking Blue, Deep Purple, Santana and numerous others, Takeshi turns to me and says, “Ash… you are nondakure!”

Given that the domain/username of “nondakure” is already occupied on Blogspot and WordPress, I’ve simply decided to use substitute the “o” with a zero. I considered using “suiho” (1: drunken stagger; tottering gait; 2: (math) drunkard’s walk; random walk)… but as I said, names are given, not taken.

So, this is how I saw in the new year:

Chimay Cinq Cents... it was on sale at Acland Cellars. Couldn't say no.

Cheers to 2011.