In Japan, that supposedly buttoned-down country, it turns out to be surprisingly easy to find people who are positively wild about whiskey. Especially Scotch. Single malts. The kind that form prickly clouds in your mouth and numb your tongue. Kenji Tachihara, the proprietor of a Tokyo whiskey bar called D-Heartman, has an explanation for this. Japan's love affair with the smoky drink started during the bubble economy of the 1980s, when sudden riches sparked interest in everything from impressionist paintings to fine liquors, and the streets of Tokyo's tony Ginza district were commonly filled with bumper-to-bumper Rolls-Royces. The Rollses are mostly gone these days, but a slew of high-class whiskey bars remains. "Now that Japanese people know the taste," Tachihara muses, "they cannot stop."

As with many things in Japan, actually tracking down an upper-crust watering hole can be a delicate process. Foreigners should be respectful when intruding on this nuanced culture; bringing someone who speaks Japanese can help.

Nevertheless, those with a real taste for some of the world's rarest malts will find negotiating the peculiarities of the Tokyo whiskey scene well worth the effort. Consider, for example, the Pearl Bar, a hard-to-find spot in the neon canyons of Tokyo's Shinjuku shopping district. With the help of a couple of local veterans, I tracked this place down on a recent visit to the city. The atmosphere suggested a richly designed cave, with square, leather chairs and a gleaming counter stretching to infinity; and the jazz pianist wasn't bad, especially with the unintended accompaniment of the bartender shaking drinks like castanets. I asked the waiter if he had anything special behind the bar. This is important--it's not unusual for a menu to list only ten or 15 whiskeys when there are in fact another 70 or so available. And sure enough, pay dirt: He brought out an off-menu 29-year-old Macellan and poured a $17 shot into a small snifter. A popular brand in Japan, Macellan is mellow, almost like sake. The initial pungency startled my taste buds into withdrawal at first; only when the Macellan trickled down my throat in a syrupy glide did it begin to release its pent-up seasoning.

A good start. But the neighborhood for the truly whiskey-obsessed is Ginza, where bars and so-called hostess clubs (establishments with really, um, nice waitresses) are stacked one atop the other, up to seven stories high, for blocks on end. Many are quasi-private clubs open only to Japanese businessmen and their guests, but there are opportunities for the diligent, enterprising, or simply deep-pocketed.

D-Heartman, although it's reachable only via a six-floor ride on a bleakly lit elevator, is one of the more easily accessible bars. It's a small, speakeasy-like room with a long oak bar cut from a single tree that once stood in the woods south of Kyoto. Here we found Tachihara, the 33-year-old owner, standing behind the bar. His English was passable, so we talked whiskey for a while. His bar boasts about 80 kinds, not including his "bottle keeps," the special selections that regulars buy and keep in the bar for their exclusive consumption.

Pulling out a 1957 GlenRothes, he poured me a $24 shot. Smooth and cool at first, the GlenRothes is barely noticeable until you've swallowed and exhaled, when it discharges a cascade of changing flavors. Tachihara told me that a customer tipped him off to the GlenRothes. Some of the most sought-after whiskeys in the world are in Japanese private homes, and this very bottle was once in the collection of, he says, "a big man." Tachihara finally persuaded the man to sell, even though "the memory of his wife is in the bottle."

Time to move on. Two older but well-regarded bars in the Ginza area, Doulton and Scotch Club Ichiyo, each had some appeal. Inside Doulton were chairs covered in moss-green velvet and over 100 different whiskeys--not bad. But both of them seemed a bit clubby. And besides, each closed around midnight, a sign that they cater to "good" customers--primarily rich folks of a certain age who don't stay out late.

Things were a little more lively at Kernel, also in Ginza. The owner, Hiroshi Kimura, is a barman of 30 years who attends to his customers in a white vest and white bow tie. At first he was reluctant to talk: Ignoring questions about whiskey, he mysteriously produced three yellow loquats on a small plate and a box filled with rows of perfect cherries. He then proceeded to make frozen cherry and loquat cocktails with cognac and a little champagne floating on top--deliciously sweet. "The charm of my bar is in the drinks, not the girls," he told us, in an offhand dismissal of the neighborhood's hostess bars.

At that, he sat down and launched into a passionate lecture on the art of drinking whiskey. And he brought out some of his prize possessions: a 37-year-old 1939 Macellan Glenlivet ($120 a shot), a 50-year-old 1938 Mortlach ($400 a shot), and a 50-year-old 1937 Balvenie ($400 a shot). All pretty tempting. But remembering certain budgetary limitations ("Don't go crazy," my editor had warned me), I demurred.

So Kimura countered with a more reasonably priced brand improbably named Big T; with a large, silver label, it looked like something in the sale bin at the corner liquor store. He filled a long shot glass set in an antique silver holder. Cautiously, I sipped. It turned out that this was a 30-year-old bottle of Big T, and it was surprisingly subtle, with layers of flavor that unfolded gradually after each sip. Kimura insisted I cleanse my palate with his special tea--brewed from a guarded recipe that is supposed to prevent hangovers--and try another whiskey.

This process was repeated several times. A 30-year-old White Horse with a steel lock-spring cap was a particularly complicated malt. Just as it hit the center of my tongue, I detected a rosewood or vanilla vapor. That changed to an almond extract and eventually to a fruity aftertaste. Strong stuff.

Then, suddenly, the tasting was over. Some serious customers were waiting for the table. Kimura ushered me out of the bar politely--and mentioned, in passing, that someone had just ordered that $400-a-shot 1938 Mortlach. The '80s all over again? Not quite. Back then it was $1,200.



It's 3 A.M. at the bar of the Camino Real hotel in Guadalajara, and Federico Zambrano has been drinking tequila all night. He's in a good mood. Sure, having his car stolen at gunpoint earlier in the evening had kind of put a damper on things for a while, but that was hours ago. Bottles ago. And Zambrano--a 55-year-old Mexican businessman who built his fortune from a diverse portfolio of enterprises in areas like glass, parking meters, and cement--is a man who truly appreciates a good tequila, whatever the circumstances.

So much so, in fact, that in recent years he's poured some of his ample resources into a venture called Grupo Tequilero, which produces a limited-edition tequila called Casta. He was a natural person to seek out on a recent visit to Guadalajara, where my itinerary was built around learning the difference between run-of-the-mill tequila and the truly premium stuff. High-end tequila has become somewhat fashionable lately, and in certain bars in New York City, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, you'll occasionally see it served with all the pomp of a single-malt Scotch. But while there's no question that premium tequilas generally put the more middling versions (used in most margaritas) to shame, which ones are the very best of the best? That's what I hoped Zambrano could help me discover.

The town of Tequila sits 31 miles to the northwest of Guadalajara, in rolling foothills amid fields of blue agave, the spiked plants from which all the world's tequila is produced. It's a wild and beautiful setting--fit to the drink. La Rojena, Jose Cuervo's mighty distillery, is here, housed like a sprawling hacienda behind stone walls. So are scores of small tequileros nearby, which produce limited-edition boutique labels that compete against even Cuervo's top-shelf offering, the savory La Reserva de la Familia. In these premium brews, only 100% blue agave is used. (Mexican law requires only that tequila be distilled from at least 51% blue agave, and tequilas of lower quality are made in part from lesser sources, like sugar cane.)

Premium tequilas are further set apart when they age in oak barrels, which mellows the bite. Those that sit for at least two months are called reposados, and those that age a year or more are called anejos. The reposados are a little rougher, with a somewhat stronger agave taste that many purists actually prefer.

To prepare for meeting Zambrano, I figured I needed to do more than just study the process. I needed to do a little drinking. I started at La Maestranza, a popular hangout just down the street from Guadalajara's central plaza. Bullfight memorabilia covered the walls, and waiters scurried. I sipped tequila as the Mexicans prefer, in shot glasses called cabellitos with an accompanying glass of sangrita--a piquant blend of orange juice and chiles. Next was La Destileria, a restaurant and bar that's an essential stop for serious tequila drinkers. On the walls hung the tools used by the jimadores, the men who work the agave fields; behind the bar were more than 100 tequilas. I had my first taste of two that would become favorites: Porfidio, which came in a tall, thin, hand-blown bottle, and a limited-edition Don Julio.

Thus fortified, I was ready to hook up with Zambrano and get down to business. He showed up in a Suburban stocked with six types of Casta (Nos. 4655-4660, to be precise). Packaged in exquisite bottles that are numbered and signed, Casta tequilas retail in a limited number of U.S. stores for up to $80; by the end of the night, Casta's offerings had joined my list of favorites.

The manager at La Destileria graciously allowed us to bring in our own bottles. But Zambrano was hardly a snob when it came to his competitors: Eventually we would crisscross Guadalajara by taxi, bar-hopping in search of other great tequilas. Under his guidance, I confirmed my previous favorites, and added one more to the roster: Herradura's Seleccion Suprema. It was unusually smooth, while maintaining the keen, euphoric flavor of the agave. At least, that's what I decided somewhere around the time Zambrano and I ended up laughing like fools at the Camino Real.

Zambrano had taught me a lot, but there was another reason I needed a collaborator like him: It was useful to be in the company of a man who was unfazed by the mores of the heart of tequila country. Like being routinely frisked for weapons before getting into various bars. Or like having your car stolen. We were halfway through dinner and one bottle down when a waiter told us the Suburban was gone. It seems robbers had approached Zambrano's car, brandished a gun at his driver, and hijacked it. Zambrano responded to the news with the studied nonchalance of a true jefe--particularly one who has been so well fortified with tequila. "It is part of the life, no?" he said. And then he poured another round.