When I headed to Osaka a few months ago, my friend Nick Coldicott, who lives in Tokyo, urged me to visit what he contends is the best bourbon bar in the world: Rogin’s Tavern. Knowing Nick’s command of the spirits universe, I take a commuter train out to Moriguchi, an obscure little town about half an hour from the center of Osaka. When I emerge from the station I can see a neon light spelling “Rogin’s” in English. Inside it is dim, with a long wooden bar backed by hundreds of bottles. American jazz comes from an ancient-looking jukebox in the rear.
Nearly every bottle is bourbon, though there is a smattering of rye and sour mash. I can see bottles from the 1800s next to obscure export bottlings of Jim Beam next to standard-issue Jack Daniel’s. Seiichiro Tatsumi, an older man dressed elegantly in bartender’s attire, emerges from the shadows and says hello in English. I tell him I am a friend of Nick’s, and he reaches for a bottle nestled behind the register. “You want to try a 1904?” he asks.
He tenderly unscrews the top and pours a shot for me and another for himself. I take a sip. It is a brand I’ve never heard of, once made, Tatsumi says, especially for a hotel in Kentucky. It is highly alcoholic but silky smooth. Unlike wine or vintage port, bourbon is not supposed to change much in the bottle over time. And so I think of this as a chance to taste the past and experience, almost exactly, what drinkers were sipping a hundred years ago.
“I tasted my first bourbon in the basement bar of the Rihga Royal Hotel, a famous old place in Osaka,” Tatsumi says. “Then I spent years reading everything I could about bourbon at the American cultural center. I sent letters to Kentucky and Tennessee trying to set up visits to the distilleries. I even asked for help at the American consulate. And then I finally got to visit in 1984. I fell in love with America then. I’ve been back a hundred times since. I now own a house in Lexington, and I’ve even been named a colonel in Kentucky.”
I ask him how he found all these old bottles of bourbon. “I drive across America, only on the back roads and especially at night, when you can see the lit-up liquor-store signs in the distance,” he says. “I stop at every place I pass, and I don’t just look on the shelves: I ask the clerk to comb the cellar and check the storeroom for anything old. I can’t tell you how many cases of ancient bottles I’ve found that way. I’ll try any bourbon once, and if I like it I buy more.”