Event Report: Tokyo International BarShow 2023, The New Flow Begins

It’s back! Japan’s biggest celebration of all things cocktails is the Tokyo International BarShow. 2023 marked its triumphant return after a three-year hiatus. Given the crowds, it seemed like I was not the only one looking forward to the show.

As in years past, the Tokyo International BarShow is unique amongst events in Tokyo because it encompasses virtually every kind of non-Japanese liquor, whether fermented or distilled. It is decisively not only a whisky show, meaning it attracts a huge swathe of industry folks and the general bar-going public from across Asia.

This year’s theme was “The New Flow Begins,” which was evident with the stunning announcement of “Whisky 100-year Project ‒Fellow Distillers-.”

The story goes that since around a decade ago, blenders from the five major distillers of Japanese whisky (Suntory, Nikka, Kirin, Mars, and Venture Whisky/Chichibu) got together semi-regularly to discuss all technical things whisky. While these companies may seem like competitors that won’t even give the time of day to one another — particularly Suntory and Nikka — it turns out they’ve been on relatively friendly terms lately.

That included visiting one another’s distilleries and, of course, trying out their whiskies. Looking forward to the 100th anniversary of Japanese whisky this year, those plans turned more concrete, resulting in the aforementioned project.

Specifically, they swapped stocks, and the result was put into bottles at this year’s BarShow. But not just a single bottle: each company offered their own take on the blend, meaning there were five different blended malts to try on-site.

Early 2021 saw the first official such release–the result of a stock swap–happen between Nagahama and Saburomaru. Only a month later, Chichibu and Mars Komagatake followed up with their release. With Japan’s three biggest whisky makers (Suntory, Nikka, and Kirin) now getting involved, the future just got very interesting very quickly.

Eagle-eyed readers of this site may remember that the JSLMA standard for Japanese whisky introduced in 2021 was decided by a working group of five members. The exact same companies as above, in fact. Probably not a coincidence…

The numbers

14,700 people attended the Tokyo International BarShow over two days. That’s about 1,200 people more than the pre-pandemic record of 13,500 people set in 2019. It makes it one of the largest cocktail-focused events in Asia, if not the world: Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans seems to be around 15,000-20,000 people (across five days), and Bar Convent Berlin is around 12,000 people across three days. Though the focii are different, ProWein seems to have peaked at 65,000 people in 2019, and Vinexpo had around 36,000 attendees.

Nadeshiko Cup winner Mina Asakura of Bar Tokyo in Ginza

Importantly, the BarShow is held at the same venue every year, at least as long as I’ve attended. More booths and more people in the same space leads to more crowding. This year was noticeably more crowded than years past, particularly the area around the MHD booth. If the number of attendees continues growing, I suspect the Cocktail Culture Foundation will eventually need to evaluate its options. Some ideas:

  • Adding another day (perhaps an industry-only day on a weekday?)
  • Capping ticket sales (as Japan Whisky Research Centre does for its whisky events)
  • Finding a more spacious venue (nearby Tokyo Dome has an entire baseball field for rent, provided it’s not being used for baseball…)
  • Finding an additional venue (moving some booths, or even just the main stage/seminar room to a nearby space)

You get the idea! The BarShow may be outgrowing Prism Hall.

Towards 2024

One thing that I regret about this year’s show is my own poor planning. I missed important seminars, saying hi to some friends, several bartender performances, almost the entirety of the Nadeshiko Cup, introducing myself to certain people, and sampling certain whiskies/spirits/drinks I should have tried. The entirety of the BarShow schedule and booth map is available in advance of the show. From a professional standpoint, for next year’s show, I need better planning before even arriving at Tokyo Dome. At the same time, from a personal standpoint, part of the fun is just winging it, meeting new drinks and new people.

See you there next year!

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