“One thousand days of lessons for discipline, ten thousand days of lessons for mastery.” – unknown Samurai master
There is just something about the Japanese….. my fascination with them goes as far back as the first time I saw an episode of Samurai Jack. Over the years my exposure to the culture has gone beyond cartoons (although the occasional episode of a good anime is still a favoured pastime), it has gone into understanding what makes the Japanese… Japanese.
Perhaps it is their ability to master even the most mundane task, and create an art form which others overlooked. Perhaps it is in their culture where discipline and tradition are a part of their being. Or perhaps it is how despite being on the verge of annihilation, they come back stronger and more wise than they ever were before.
Perhaps it is this fascination that took me the first time I heard of Japanese whisky. It intrigued me. What did this culture, where Ronin meets Artist meets Bonzai master do with a drink that has already reached it pinnacle under a race called the Scots. The answer, the apprentice became a master, or as close to the master that anyone else could. Yes here is a culture that did the impossible, they recreated Scotch grain for grain, sip for sip, all the while giving it their own flair.
But before we begin to talk about the current whisky trends of Japan, let me take a moment to talk about how this obsession for a foreign drink, something traditional Japanese households would frown upon (“foreign”) came to be.
THE STORY OF NIKKA & SUNTORY
1873, the Japanese Iwakura mission, a diplomatic journey by the Meiji emperor to understand the West, returns. With it, a few cases of Old Parr blended Scotch, a gift from Edinborough for the Emperor. This small gesture however would take the court by storm. The Japanese until then, being limited consumers of distilled spirits (at most distilled sake called Shochu), relished the earthy oakiness of whisky.
Fast forward to 1899, Shinjiro Torii (SUNTORY) a budding entrepreneur, creates a company to import and distribute foreign wine. This goes on to produce a red wine of its own called Akadama Port Wine, before turning into a company by the name of Kotobukiya.
Meanwhile a student of Organic Chemistry at Glasgow, by the name of Masataka Taketsuru (NIKKA) begins his journey into whisky at the Longmorn Distillery in 1919. By 1920 he has amassed great skill and knowledge, finally returning home to Japan. But this journey has not been as simple as it would seem. In Scotland he falls in love with Jessie Roberta Cowan, the daughter of a doctor near Glasgow. Their Journey is what fairy tale’s are made of, going on to inspire a TV SHOW called MASSAN. Jessie’s sister a member of the medical faculty at Glasgow had requested Taketsuru San to teach her brother Jujitsu, it was then that he met Jessie. He confided in her, his vision of opening Japan’s first Real Whisky distillery. Their marriage was a challenge to the norm. Understand that this was a time where hostility was building between counties ,recovering from the aftershock of World War I.
Coming back to the Whisky (excuse me for the detour, but I believe it may show you how Japanese whisky is more than just a product, it is a story). Well coming back to 1920, Masatkaka Taketsuru begins to work for Shinjiro Torii, who at the time was searching for a man capable of helping him produce Japan’s first malt whisky distillery at Yamazaki (1923). This partnership also gave birth to Suntory Whisky Shirofuda , the first single malt whisky made in Japan five years later.
Their partnership however came to an end in 1934, when Taketsuru founded his own distilling company, Dai Nippon Kaju K.K., in Yoichi, which has gone on to become NIKKA. Kobukiya on the other hand released its Single malt as Tory’s Whisky in 1946 and ultimately used the name to rename the company as SUNTORY in 1963.
And with this my dear friend lets begin the journey of Modern Japanese Whisky, through the eyes of the two Big Boys of the Japanese Whisky Industry;
Yes believe it or not, 007, Batman, Neo and Dr. Peter Venkman are endorsers to this Mega Giant of the Spirit world. You may have not noticed but the company, in course of expansion’s and takeover’s, owns quite a few international distilleries. Some of which you may be drinking at this moment. Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Laphroig, Teachers and so on. But we are talking about Japanese Whisky, and of such must talk about the whisky’s that made this companies reputation. The Picture bellow gives us an insight about the 3 Major Brands of the group, being Yamazaki (named after the site of the first distillery), Hakushu and Hibiki.
One has to keep in mind certain peculiarities of Japanese whisky’s however. Dave Broom, a world renowned whisky expert, and a seasoned veteran in Japanese whisky brings some compelling points about the spirit;
- Japanese Whisky is not an Exact Replica of Scotch, this is primarily due to the use of Japanese Oak, that lends a certain fresh citrus type note to the produce.
- Yes Japanese whisky was made in laboratories, But keep in mind this is a race that had to enter an industry that had over 200 years of development. In saying that, the final product does symbolise Taketsuru’s belief that whisky making is an act of cooperation and creation between the blessings of nature and wisdom of man.
- Age On The Bottle does not mean it comes from the same blend, what i mean by than is while a Macallan 10 and Macllan 15, would probably have the same whisky blend, only aged more. In Japan however, a Yamazaki 10 and Yamazaki 18 have two different blends altogether.
- No exchange of whisky is used for blends, what this means is while Scotland’s 96 malt distilleries are used by the bottling companies (such as Johnnie Walker) to create a perfect blend along with non malt whisky distilleries, In Japan however the 2 super giants only have 4 distilleries between them, meaning they have to make their own whisky for blends.
- Generally had with ice, and heavily diluted with water or soda by the Japanese
Lets begin by talking about the site that gave birth to Japanese obsession with Single Malt Whisky. 1923 saw Torii San use this site, which had a water supply from 3 rivers (reputedly the same riverside that Sen Rikyu, the creator of the Japanese tea ceremony used to build his first tea house). Moreover it had a railway route to Kyoto and the port of Osaka nearby. It has been built over 3 times, with changes in the design of the stills and mash tuns (barley mashers) being a common occurance. In fact all 6 pairs of stills are different in length, capacity etc. Along with this 5 different types of casks are used, ranging from bourbon casks, to fresh Japanese Oak (Mazunara) casks.
YAMAZAKI 10YO -40%ABV
PRICE masterofmalt.com : Rs 3329/-
NOSE: very light, spicy and oaky (similar to Glenmorangie 10)
PALATE: clean, citrus fruit zest
FINISH: crisp and soft
CONCLUSION: delicate and fresh
Located in a national park (yes you heard right), it is perhaps one of the largest distilleries in all of Japan holding up to 450,000 casks. Located near Mount Kaikomagatake, its pine filled scenery is mimicked in its products. Using soft mountain spring water and a revolutionary take on the whisky process (even more than Yamazaki) using 5 types of barley, both peated and unpeated as well as more drastically varied stills, it sets itself apart in the whisky world. The weather again, gives a unique quality to the product, being cooler and more humid than Yamazaki.
HAKUSHU 12YO – 43.5%ABV
PRICE masterofmalt.com: Rs 6186/-
NOSE: light pine like perfume
PALATE: minty and green apple, lime
FINISH: tinge of light smoke
CONCLUSION: fresh but less depth than Yamazaki
Blended whisky is what got Japan into the craze all those years ago. Torii San’s first product, Shirofuda was a heavily smoky one, something that although flopped in the market, did begin a gradual craze towards the product. Even today blended whisky makes up for the majority of the sales of Japanese whisky, often bought by the same market that started the craze i.e. the off work salary man, in search for his fix. This craze was so large in fact that in the 1980’s Suntory sold over 12.4 million cases domestically, almost as much as ALL Johnie Walher Varients Today!! While in the past the social pyramid defined who could afford and drink what whisky, today young whisky drinkers have access to premium products on the market.
what sets Hibiki apart is its use of bamboo charcoal filteration (passing the product through charcoal to remove hardness) and ageing in Plum Liqueur casks.
HIBIKI 12YO – 43%ABV
PRICE masterofmalt.com: Rs 4543/-
NOSE: spicy and intense citrus
PALATE: sweet and gentle (like most blended scotch)
FINISH: peppery and minty
CONCLUSION: unlike scotch blends
Now although not as largely endorsed as Suntory, Nikka has no fewer celebrities to its name. Snanislav Vadrna, a legend to mixology, Orson Welles (yes Mr. Citizen Kane) himself a long time fan and endorser for NIKKA, and last but in no way any least Rod Stewart, British Rockstar and whisky enthusiast are all a part of the NIKKA bandwagon.
However I want to take another moment away from the Economic successes of these gentlemen. Masataka Taketsuru in my opinion had perhaps the more story worthy journey between him and Torii San. From Scotland to France to America, his journey with Rita Taketsuru (Jessie Roberta Cowan) saw an end in 1961, with her succumbing to a number of ailments. Today there is a road named after her in Yoiichi. Their legacy will forever resound in the stills of Nikka. On that note, lets delve further into this brand;
Most if not all distilleries, choose to locate themselves near rail tracks or roads or ports. Simply it helps them market and distribute their product. Yoichi is on its own in this case, closer to Vladivostock than to the Japanese Capital (not completely true, but certainly more accessible through transport routes). But it was Taketsuru’s dream to establish himself near Hokkaido (the Nothernmost Island on which Yoichi is located). Perhaps after years of being denied his way by Torii San and setting up a distillery at Yamazaki, he seeked rebirth to his vision. Without question producing the smokiest whisky out of Japan, Yoichi with its use of heavily peated Scotish barley and coal to fired stills, set itself apart.
YOICHI 10YO – 45%
PRICE masterofmalt.com: Rs 5511/-
NOSE: Sooty, smoky and saline
PALATE: light oak, big smoke and oily
FINISH: Japanese oak like acidity
CONCLUSION: young and smoky
Rolling hills, hot springs (onsen), Maple trees. This is a land strait out of one of Hayao Miyazaki’s tales, if ever there was one. If Yoichi represented the cold icy seas, Miyagikyo represented the spring. Taketsuru wanted to change things around when he decided to build his second still in the Miyagi Valley. It was a result of over three years travelling to find the perfect site, legend says that after walking onto the banks of the rivers here, he took a palm full of water to drink, and that was that. Now water is important to whisky, aside from being the base to the product, its minerals affects the fermentation process. That being said, this level of interest was almost unheard of. Taketsuru is know to have asked his managers at Longmorn if water was analysed. Perhaps it was this understanding that something so basic was not taken into account that led him here. This sense of innovation also led him to use Coffey Stills from Glasgow (the latest innovation in distilling) along with the regular pot and patent stills to product Miyagikyo’s signature style.
MIYAGIKYO 10YO – 45%ABV
PRICE masterofmalt.com: Rs 5858/-
PALATE: soft and sweet
NOSE: slightly floral and fruity
FINISH: fruity but mellow
CONCLUSION: sweet young
So we come to an end now. Perhaps the largest article i have written. But honestly speaking, keeping it any shorter wouldn’t have done any justice. Just looking at the pictures above you can see how this spirit that you and i take for granted took the love, work and dedication of these men to perfect. But in the end, their journey was a sweet one (and often smoky). Torii San and Taketsuru San did finally achieve what they dreamt of, they brought Whisky to the land of the rising sun.
And in their own way, their legacy shall never set. At least not to us my dear reader…