TOKYO – Keith Motsi is raving about the current state of the cocktail scene in Asia. “If you look everywhere around Asia, it’s going through the same boom that London and New York experienced 10 or 20 years ago,” enthuses the beverage director of Virtù, located in the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi.
Virtù opened in September 2020 to a continent largely closed for business. Three years later, with one of Asia’s most beloved bartenders at the helm, it’s full speed ahead for the Tokyo bar, winner of the Disaronno Highest New Entry Award at Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023.
“I travel a lot, and you walk into a lot of bars here in Asia where the quality of cocktails, the glassware and the level of service is just insane,” continues the Zimbabwe-born bartender. “The only difference is that bars in the West know how to market themselves very well. A lot of great bars in Asia just don’t get the attention they deserve.”
Having been crowned winner of the Disaronno Highest New Entry Award for its impressive debut at No.20 in this year’s ranking of Asia’s 50 Best Bars, Virtù is enjoying its rightful moment in the spotlight. Its recent success has been led by Motsi, a veteran of the international bar scene, who moved to the Japanese capital from Seoul in August 2022 after two years at the celebrated Charles H.
“Nothing touches Tokyo,” says Motsi, warming to his theme. “It’s the Champions League of restaurants and bars. Here you can have a bar built on Japanese spirits alone.”
Striking the balance
Step inside Motsi’s newest venture and it’s immediately clear that this is not a stereotypical minimalist Japanese bar. Virtù is a wholly opulent affair: its interior brings together art deco furnishings and Parisian-style gilded ornaments, with spectacular vistas of the sprawling metropolis below. Staff are aplenty and attentive, with service designed to cater to your every whim.
“Smaller bars are king here in Japan,” says Motsi. Intimate ingredient- and technique-led establishments have become the country’s noted style of watering hole, often with just 10 to 12 seats available, delivering a highly personalised experience.
Virtù, by contrast, boasts over 50 covers across a large space. But for Motsi and his team, the aim is to strike the sweet spot between the intimate and the sumptuous. “We’re trying to take the stigma out of hotel bars; to counter the idea that there’s no ambience,” he says. An evening inside Virtù, with its upbeat atmosphere, demonstrates that Motsi’s famous penchant for positive hospitality has come through.
The drinks programme follows suit, melding the produce-led philosophy of Japan’s boutique drinkeries and the showmanship service of hotel hostelries. Its Smoked Ume Fashioned combines Japanese whisky with hinoki bitters and brandy umeshu [plum liqueur], proudly produced-in house. It’s an artisanal cocktail tied together with the theatrics and playful presentation of a slick hotel bar.
Its Mellow Amer Negroni embodies the bar’s French-Japanese hybrid approach, elevating the classic cocktail with Japanese gin, white peach liqueur and Chartreuse. “For us, it’s about bridging that gap. We make it approachable and try not to take ourselves too seriously,” adds Motsi.
“Here, you can just be yourself,” says Virtù’s senior bartender, Graham Kimura, referring to both guests and the bar’s staff. “I mean, just look at me! I’m not really your typical Japanese hotel bartender,” he laughs, indicating the absence of an immaculate outfit or bow tie, and the unmissable presence of full sleeves of tattoos on each arm.
This is perhaps Virtù’s greatest achievement: delivering a taste of extravagance to the cocktail lovers of Tokyo without undue pretention. “Yes, it’s luxury and we still have a standard to maintain. But we also have a lot of fun – that’s the most important thing,” says Motsi.
Kimura, who worked in the US for over 20 years before moving to Japan, and Motsi aren’t the only ones drawn into the country’s flourishing gastronomy and mixology. “You’re starting to see more and more outsiders come and stay in Japan, especially within bars. Nowadays, it’s clear that people aren’t just coming to borrow the culture and leave with it. They’re coming to spend time, learn and really understand the culture, so many end up staying,” says Motsi.
Further afield in Asia, Motsi believes that the most exciting potential in the sector is for South Korea. When he departed Seoul in 2022, the move came with a natural sense of sadness, leaving behind a city with a blossoming cocktail and gastronomic culture. “It was very hard to leave. Seeing something growing from within is always so fun and exciting.
“In five or 10 years, that’s where the capital of the industry will be,” Motsi boldly declares. Indeed, this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Bars list sees many Seoul-based bars on the rise, led by Zest, which climbed a record-breaking 45 positions from its previous ranking to earn the Nikka Highest Climber Award.
Asia’s bar scene may be at the very highest level, and Virtù is certainly hitting its stride. But it’s also clear the bar doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. “Our first year was just about survival,” says Motsi. “The last few years have been about fine-tuning. In reality, we’re just getting started.” – Agencies