Japanese whiskey talk of town

After years of laboring in Scotland's shadow, distillers are forging global reputation for quality

by Rocky Swift and Masatsugu Horie

Bloomberg

Toru Itakura sipped whiskey from plastic cups as showgirls cavorted, bagpipes played and a little bit of Scotland came to Tokyo at a sampling for connoisseurs.

Itakura, a bar owner in Yokohama, finally chose a Scotch, as well as Ichiro’s Malt, a little-known Japanese brand.

“The Japanese types deliver certain intricacies and aromas you can’t find in Scotch,” said Itakura, 33, sporting a patchwork cap and goatee.

Japan is gaining a reputation for producing some of the world’s best whiskey. Last year, Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.’s 20-year vintage, made at its facility in Yoichi in Hokkaido, a town with a population of just 21,000, was named the world’s best single-malt by England-based Whisky Magazine, whose blind tasting also named rival Suntory Ltd.’s Hibiki brand the best blended variety.

Winning those awards was a “shot across the bow for the Scotch industry,” said David Kroll, chief executive officer of Japan-based whiskey distributor Whisk-E Ltd. “Japanese companies are starting to export more and take it seriously.”

Whiskey sales in Japan have fallen more than three-quarters since peaking in the early 1980s and now account for less than 1 percent of the nation’s alcohol revenue. The switch to wine and other alcoholic drinks began in the 1990s after domestic tax changes made whiskey more expensive. Nikka and Suntory, which together control 90 percent of the market, hope to make up for that decline by selling more overseas.

Suntory, which has about 70 percent of the domestic market, presently exports just 1 percent of its whiskey output, while Nikka, No. 2 in Japan, has a growing presence in Europe. Nikka is owned by Tokyo-listed Asahi Breweries Ltd.

At the Yoichi distillery, Nikka is putting its faith in nature to make its next champion.

“After more than 70 years, there are things we understand about making whiskey and others that are still a mystery,” said Yukio Aratani, who’s spent 25 years at the company and is now the general manager at Yoichi.

The company, which began focusing on single malts in the early 1990s, makes its whiskey from Scottish barley, Japanese yeast and mountain-fed Yoichi water, aging most of its production in American white-oak barrels.

Nikka whiskeys have hints of walnuts, truffles and vanilla, and their aromas are “woody” and “smoky,” according to Ulf Buxrud, author of “Japanese Whisky: Facts, Figures and Taste.”

By trademark law, only whisky from Scotland can be called Scotch. The Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland claims to be the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery, having received its right to operate in 1608, according to Moyle District Council’s tourism Web site.

Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru chose the Yoichi site for its climatic similarity to Scotland. Drastic changes in heat and humidity and the site’s proximity to the ocean influence the whiskey’s character, said Aratani.

Once a single malt is in a cask, distillers can do little but wait and let nature take its course, said Koichi Nishikawa, quality control manager at Yoichi. The storage process itself combines science and guesswork, with different types of casks, and even shelf height in the warehouse, playing a part.

In Suntory’s 86-year-old Yamazaki distillery in Kyoto, chief blender Seiichi Koshimizu is leaving much less to nature for the perfect bottle.

“We were regarded as an imitator of real whiskey, but things have changed,” said Koshimizu, 59, who tastes hundreds of glasses of unblended whiskey each day to orchestrate a harmony of flavors. The award-winning 30-year Hibiki — or “resonance” in Japanese — is the culmination of these efforts.

Blended whiskeys, such as popular Scotch brands Johnnie Walker and Cutty Sark, are favored by some drinkers over single malts for their consistency.

Many outside Japan only know Suntory from a scene in the 2003 movie “Lost in Translation,” in which Bill Murray plays an actor paid to come to Tokyo and film a whiskey commercial, with the line: “It’s Suntory time.”

“It was a great boost for us,” said Masaki Morimoto, general manager for Suntory’s premium spirits marketing department. “I admit, I felt like there was a slight sense of insult to Japanese, but it’s OK. Our company got famous internationally.”

Barrels from a type of Asian oak, put to use when supply from America dried up during World War II, infuse Yamazaki’s whiskeys cured in the wood with what’s been described as a distinctive “old temple” aroma.

Japanese makers need to play up these differences if they’re to scratch out a bigger presence overseas, Buxrud said.

“These components contribute to broadening the aroma and taste spectrum of whiskey,” he said. “They are not copycats.”

Notwithstanding the awards and aspirations to global markets, Japanese distillers still labor under the historical and creative shadow of Scotland, said David Wondrich, wine and spirits editor at Saveur magazine.

“They’re starting to figure out what a Japanese-style whiskey is,” Wondrich said. “Much of it is still imitation Scotch.”

From the stage of the whiskey-sampling event, a master blender splashed grain spirits into an adoring crowd of reddened faces, and at least one attendee was seen stumbling in search for a receptacle to return some of the samples he’d drunk.

“If the taste holds up and it has an air of luxury, people overseas will go for Japan’s whiskeys,” Itakura said.