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Cocktail chat: Holly Graham

Fifteen years since she left London for Asia, drinks industry veteran Holly Graham has cut the ribbon on her first bar, Tokyo Confidential.

Holly Graham
Holly Graham puts Tokyo Confidential as “like me, but a bar”

*This feature was first published in the February issue of The Spirits Business magazine.

To say Holly Graham has come a long way from when she arrived in Asia from the UK roughly 15 years ago to teach English in rural Thailand feels like an understatement, to say the least. While living abroad gave her a sense of adventure, and the gig paid well, Graham didn’t want to be a teacher, and at the ripe old age of 27 began to wonder “what the fuck I was doing”.

From there, writing a casual blog turned into a job editing Time Out Hong Kong’s food and drinks section, and then as managing editor of Asia’s DRiNK Magazine. During the pandemic, Graham also penned her own book, Cocktails of Asia: Regional Recipes and the Spirited Stories Behind Them, which she says is her “love letter to the industry that has supported and given me a home”.

It was bartending at her favourite bar in Hong Kong, The Old Man, though, where Graham really found herself: “I loved the industry and felt like I had found my own tribe,” she recalls. Graham says the idea to move to Tokyo came out of the blue: “I got a message from my now business partner on LinkedIn and, long­-story-­medium-­long, he was just like, ‘Hey we’re looking to open this bar and we’d like you to consult’.”

Graham was flown out to meet everyone in Tokyo, where she says the “vibes were really good”, and she “had a really good gut feeling”. Despite having seen lots of her friends in the industry get “royally fucked over”, she decided to move to Tokyo in September, where now, she’s the co-­owner of Tokyo Confidential, and is, understandably, “extremely exhausted”.

“But it’s also been extremely amazing”, she says. “We’re not a Japanese bar; we’re a bar in Japan”, Graham explains. “Japanese bars can be quiet and stoic, but we’re more like a lively Hong Kong­-style cocktail bar – we still want to give people a taste of Japan, or that novelty idea of what Japan is. Katana Kitten in New York is an example of that.”

Cocktail chat
The team

While it might be niche for the city, Graham says so far people have been very receptive to the bar. Tokyo Confidential’s motto is ‘pull up, fess up’ which is written under the house rules as you walk into the space. Graham jokes that it’s “like me, but a bar. There’s no dress code, do what you want to do (but don’t be a dick, obviously), alleviate yourself, and get [things] off your chest”.

Tokyo Confidential’s centrepiece, a snaking bar made from 300-­year­-old reclaimed dry wood from Nagano Prefecture, has helped to create a convivial atmosphere. “It has got that kind of ‘hanging around the dining table’ vibe,” she says.


The bar programme Graham and her head bartender, Waka Murata, have designed is a high­-concept one, but at the same time, is not inaccessible. “While we want beautiful cocktails, we don’t want it to be too ‘Instagrammy’ or anything,” Graham explains.

Some of her personal highlights are the Tea Sea, made with Fords Gin (Graham says Tokyo Confidential is almost like the unofficial home of Fords in Japan) with Sauvignon Blanc, grappa, and tropical green tea syrup. Destroy All Monsters, meanwhile, is a Dirty Martini made with miso brown butter wash, named after her favourite Godzilla film. Graham says she has had a custom Godzilla fountain made that dispenses cocktails from a tap in the monster’s belly.

Destroy all Monsters

In saying all this, Graham adds that the cocktails aren’t mandatory: “You don’t have to try my cocktails; you might be sick of cocktails.” Champagne is also a big part of the bar, and Graham has installed a fridge with 20 different bottles on offer, at “a bit more affordable pricing. We have our rooftop space as well, so it’s great if you want to go out there and pop a bottle,” she says.


Graham takes alcohol-­free drinks seriously too. “My business partner doesn’t drink much, my mum doesn’t drink now, and it’s part of the inclusivity thing. We want the bar to be rowdy, but we also want to welcome everyone, including those that don’t want to drink. I’m kind of all or nothing if I’m not drinking. I really don’t want a lot of sugar, and I’m also trying to cut calories. Sometimes you go to a bar sober and you feel fobbed off a little bit. You want to try the signature cocktails but without the booze, without compromising on flavour – not settling for a different low-­and­-no menu. That’s something I will be striving to do with the next menu.”

The bar itself is in Tokyo’s Azabu­-Juban district, which Graham calls an “expat-­heavy area. We have lots of Spanish people coming, lots of Singaporeans, but a lot of locals as well. There’s a lot of international locals that want to be living in that scene. We’ve got a nice little community here of smaller bars. A new rum bar opened a block from us, and I had a special bottle of rum and took it to them. People are kind of shocked in Japan when you do things like that.

“There’s a want for community spirit but people don’t actually go out and greet neighbours with gifts and such. I’m excited to do more things like that.”

House rules

As a cocktail destination, Graham says that “Asia has always been way ahead of the game.”

“People always look to London and New York and it almost feels like the psyche at large just thought we weren’t advanced somehow. We have such incredible produce, and everyone’s excellent at showcasing that.

“The trend here is not drinks, but the focus on hospitality, and curating drinks that are easier to make so you can focus on service. That’s what we are trying to do with batch-cocktails. If I can make a batch of cocktails and it’s still delicious, then that gives me more time to focus on my guests, and that’s really what a bar is about.”


Will Graham open more bars in the future? “If I get to a point where I feel confident in not being around all the time, then definitely,” she says.

“My dream is to collaborate with one of my favourite chefs and do drink pairings while he does the food. I never ever stop. I always give myself stuff to do. It’s a superpower, but it can also be a pain in the arse sometimes.”

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