One for theroad

Surg­ing pop­u­lar­ity has seen prices for Ja­pan’s top whiskies sky­rocket—and their avail­abil­ity plum­met. Christo­pher Dewolf heads to Ja­pan to find out why

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents - Christo­pher Dewolf trav­elled to Ja­pan cour­tesy of Cathay Pa­cific Air­ways and within Ja­pan on a rail pass spon­sored by the Ja­pan Na­tional Tourism Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Surg­ing pop­u­lar­ity has seen prices for Ja­pan’s top whiskies sky­rocket—and their avail­abil­ity plum­mete

Adamp, woody scent lingers in the air as we as­cend in the lift. “It smells like a for­est,” I re­mark. “A whisky for­est,” says my guide, a soft-spo­ken man named Makoto Su­mita. The doors open and it be­comes clear what he means. There are stacks of casks, thou­sands of them, stamped with dates and filled with liq­uid that will be blended, bot­tled and sold around the world at in­creas­ingly high prices. I close my eyes and in­hale deeply: the air is sweet and vaguely fruity. I’m breath­ing evap­o­rated whisky. “That’s the an­gel’s share,” says Su­mita. “We lose 3 per cent per year.”

We are in one of the ware­houses of the Sun­tory Ya­mazaki dis­tillery, the old­est whisky dis­tillery in Ja­pan and the pro­ducer of some of the world’s most ac­claimed sin­gle malts. Su­mita has been a man­ager here for decades and he’s never seen it so busy. “Be­cause whisky sales are so good, the dis­tillery is work­ing at more than 100 per cent.”

And it’s no won­der. In the past 15 years, Ja­panese dis­tillers have racked up some of the world’s top awards—the most re­cent from Jim Mur­ray, who de­clared the 2013 Ya­mazaki Sherry Cask Sin­gle Malt to be the world’s best whisky in this year’s edi­tion of his Whisky Bi­ble. From high-rise bars in Hong Kong to base­ment dens in Paris, Ja­panese whisky has be­come

the con­nois­seur’s choice, a sought-af­ter li­ba­tion whose in­fu­sion of Scot­tish tech­nique into a Ja­panese mi­lieu has be­guiled a new gen­er­a­tion of drinkers.

I’ve long been a craft beer en­thu­si­ast, but malt is malt—and my brief for­ays into the world of Ja­panese whisky left me in­trigued. So I flew to Ja­pan to find out the se­crets be­hind its cher­ished ex­port. The trip be­gan aus­pi­ciously as I walked into my suite at the Man­darin Ori­en­tal, Tokyo, where I found two small bot­tles of Hibiki 17 and Hakushu sin­gle malt await­ing me with a bucket of ice. It wasn’t un­til later that food and bev­er­age di­rec­tor Thomas Combescot-lepère broke the bad news. “You’ve come at an in­ter­est­ing time,” he says. “There’s no whisky left.”

It seems the surge of in­ter­est in Ja­panese whisky has taken pro­duc­ers by sur­prise, which has led them to ra­tion bot­tles of their finest ex­pres­sions. CombescotLepère says prices rose 40 per cent in April alone and it has be­come im­pos­si­ble for him to buy more than a few bot­tles of top-shelf whiskies, such as Hibiki 30, a fan­tas­tic blend of malt and grain from Sun­tory’s three dis­til­leries.

“Nor­mally we have 40 to 50 items of Ja­panese whisky,” says Shusaku Osawa, the man­ager of Liquors Hasegawa, which stocks about 800 kinds of Scotch, bour­bon and other whiskies—but not much more than a dozen Ja­panese whiskies, now that de­mand has far out­stripped sup­ply.

To find out more about the short­age, I meet Bel­gian-born Ste­fan Van Ey­cken, chief editor of Non­jatta, an English-lan­guage Ja­panese whisky blog. He was such a fan of sin­gle malt that he did his PHD in Ed­in­burgh “be­cause it was close to whisky”—and it was there that he met his Ja­panese wife. “For so many years, whisky sales in Ja­pan slumped. It was the whisky fans who kept things go­ing,” he says. En­thu­si­asts were treated to sin­gle-cask bot­tlings, the liq­uid equiv­a­lent of a great writer’s un­pub­lished man­u­script; some even bought en­tire casks. Even as the whiskies be­gan to win in­ter­na­tional awards, there was more than enough to go around.

Then came the high­ball. In 2008, Sun­tory be­gan to pro­mote whisky so­das as a lighter al­ter­na­tive to beer, and Ja­panese sales re­versed their de­cline for the first time in nearly 20 years. In­ter­na­tional

ac­claim con­tin­ued to buoy the high end of the mar­ket. The trends con­verged this year when NHK broad­cast the his­tor­i­cal soap opera Mas­san, about the ro­mance be­tween Ja­panese whisky pi­o­neer Masa­taka Taket­suru and his Scot­tish wife, Rita Cowan. Ja­panese drinkers who had never paid much heed to their home­grown sin­gle malts sud­denly took in­ter­est. “Now peo­ple fetishise it,” says Van Ey­cken. “It gets hard to open bot­tles be­cause they are sur­rounded by this aura.”

To ap­pre­ci­ate the history of Ja­panese whisky, you need to board a train to Ya­mazaki, a vil­lage in the hills be­tween Ky­oto and Osaka. This is where, in 1923, Shin­jiro Torii em­barked on the un­likely pro­ject of build­ing a Scotch dis­tillery in Ja­pan. To make his con­coc­tion, Torii hired Taket­suru, the son of a sake brewer, who stud­ied or­ganic chem­istry in Glas­gow and earned his keep work­ing at dis­til­leries.

Their first prod­uct, re­leased in 1929, was a flop. “Peo­ple didn’t like it be­cause it was too smoky,” says Su­mita. Taket­suru left to start his own dis­tillery in Yoichi, on Hokkaido, while Torii con­tin­ued to experiment. He fi­nally struck gold with Kaku­bin, a sweet, mel­low blend that is still Ja­pan’s top-selling whisky. Even to­day, peated whiskies are rare in Ja­pan. “Blenders use a small amount [of peat]—it gives it a deep flavour but not any smoke,” says Su­mita.

Of course, what truly sets Ja­panese whisky apart is Ja­pan it­self. When whisky emerges from the pot still, it is an ag­gres­sively fruity, clear spirit—moon­shine, ba­si­cally. Only af­ter years in a wood bar­rel, sub­jected to the changes of sea­son and the mys­te­ri­ous qual­i­ties of the wood it­self, does some­thing unique emerge. That be­comes clear as Su­mita sits me down and gives me sam­ples of 12-year-old Ya­mazaki sin­gle malt. There’s one aged in Span­ish sherry casks, which tastes of brown sugar and figs. Another, ma­tured in casks made of Ja­panese mizu­nara— a kind of in­dige­nous white oak—tastes al­to­gether dif­fer­ent: flo­ral yet woody. “Ja­panese peo­ple say it re­minds them of tem­ple in­cense,” says Su­mita.

In the pine forests 100 kilo­me­tres north­west of Tokyo, in Chichibu, Ichiro Akuto has built Ja­pan’s first new whisky dis­tillery since 1973. Un­like Ya­mazaki and Hakushu, which em­ploy hun­dreds of peo­ple, this is an ar­ti­sanal op­er­a­tion. Akuto has just one pair of pot stills and nine full-time staff. Asked why he set up in Chichibu, he says, “I was born here. It’s that sim­ple.” But it’s more com­pli­cated than that. Akuto’s fam­ily be­gan brew­ing sake in Chichibu nearly 400 years ago. In 1941, his grand­fa­ther founded the Hanyu dis­tillery nearby. The de­clin­ing for­tunes of Ja­panese whisky in the 1990s led the fam­ily to sell the busi­ness, but the new owner wasn’t in­ter­ested in buy­ing any of the

whisky, so Akuto res­cued the stock and hatched plans to start his own dis­tillery.

Since open­ing in 2008, Akuto has re­leased dozens of ex­pres­sions based on the old Hanyu whisky and his younger Chichibu malts. He is re­lent­lessly ex­per­i­men­tal, mak­ing use not only of the stan­dard sherry casks and bour­bon bar­rels, but also te­quila bar­rels and Pe­dro Ximénez wine casks. First, Akuto drives me to a bar­ley field whose grain he will soon malt and mill him­self. “I feel it’s fruitier than im­ported bar­ley,” he says. Akuto then takes me to his cooper­age, where 88-year-old master crafts­man Mit­suo Saito makes new casks out of Amer­i­can and Ja­panese oak. The first Ja­panese whisky to win a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional award—nikka’s 10-year-old Yoichi sin­gle malt, in 2001—had been aged in one of Saito’s casks. Two years ago, he de­cided to re­tire, so he is now train­ing an ap­pren­tice. “Why go to all this trou­ble?” I ask Akuto. “It’s fun,” he says. “I re­ally like whisky. You’d prob­a­bly do the same if you’re a whisky en­thu­si­ast—try lo­cal bar­ley, try your own cooper­age. It’s in­ter­est­ing.”

It’s hard to say what Ja­panese whisky will be like in a decade or two. Ru­mours abound that some of the in­dus­try’s big dogs are plan­ning to pull out of the sin­gle-malt busi­ness en­tirely, ex­cept for noage-state­ment ex­pres­sions. “There’s not a lot of trans­parency,” says Van Ey­cken.

In­deed, the fu­ture might look a lot like Nikka’s Miyagikyo dis­tillery, which is set on the banks of the strik­ingly clear Nikkawa River out­side Sendai. Opened by Taket­suru in 1969, Miyagikyo pro­duces an ex­cel­lent sin­gle malt with a light, spicy and faintly peaty flavour. These days, how­ever, Nikka’s strength can be found in its blended whiskies, in­clud­ing the ac­claimed Nikka From the Bar­rel, which make use of Miyagikyo’s two Cof­fey stills that pro­duce a whisky more sim­i­lar to bour­bon than Scotch.

These kinds of blends will be­come more and more valu­able to whisky pro­duc­ers, sim­ply be­cause they don’t need to spend as many years in the bar­rel. “No­body could pre­dict what would hap­pen in 10 or 20 years,” says On­odera Akiko, my guide at Miyagikyo. “As a whisky com­pany, we have to keep run­ning our busi­ness, so we might have to re­duce some of our ex­pres­sions.” It could be years be­fore well-aged Ja­panese sin­gle malts are once again avail­able in abun­dance—from the big play­ers, at least.

Back in Tokyo, I head to Zoetrope, a tiny bar with the world’s best se­lec­tion of Ja­panese whisky; about 300 bot­tles are open at any given time. I start with a five-year-old sherry cask sin­gle malt from Akashi, a dis­tillery near Osaka. It’s sweet but well-rounded, and sur­pris­ingly ma­ture for its age. The same is true for Ichiro’s On the Way, the first bot­tling of a Chichibu sin­gle malt. Made from whisky aged for be­tween three and five years in bour­bon bar­rels and a mizu­nara cask, it is spicy and com­plex, with a kind of funky barn­yard flavour I nor­mally as­so­ciate with Bel­gian beer.

I think back to some­thing Akuto told me at his dis­tillery. “When I started, I wanted to make a Chichibu sin­gle malt whisky,” he said. “Hon­estly speak­ing, I don’t know what it will be like. No­body knows. In 10 years, 20 years, we’ll find out.”


Hakushu Dis­tillery

Sun­tory’s Hakushu fa­cil­ity in Hokuto is known as “the for­est dis­tillery” for its green sur­rounds Founded in 2008 by Ichiro Akuto, this is where the ac­claimed Ichiro’s Malt is pro­duced



ya­mazaki Dis­tillery

Ja­pan’s first com­mer­cial dis­tillery was built in 1923 by Sun­tory founder Shin­jiro Torii

Miyagikyo Dis­tillery

Nikka’s dis­tillery near Sendai was built in 1969 and fea­tures prime un­der­ground wa­ter fil­tered through a layer of peat



Ky­oto Osaka

make it sun­tory time From left: Shinji Fukuyo, master blender at the Sun­tory Ya­mazaki dis­tillery; the build­ing nes­tles in a ver­dant hill­side and is lo­cated be­tween Ky­oto and Osaka

crys­tal bliss Due to a surge of in­ter­est in Ja­panese whisky, Sun­tory’s 30-year-old ex­pres­sions regularly fetch top dol­lar at auc­tion

Chichibu Dis­tillery

roll out the bar­rels The thou­sands of casks at the Sun­tory Ya­mazaki dis­tillery leave the air sweet with the an­gel’s share

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