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‘Japanese Whisky’ puts the ambrosial spirit in its place

by Iain Maloney

Contributing Writer

“People assume Japanese whisky is just a copy of Scottish whisky,” says author Brian Ashcraft when I meet him in a specialist Japanese whisky bar on a rainy Osaka day. “But it is its own thing. It has its own tradition and culture. Early on when they first started distilling, they knew they were making Japanese whisky. I don’t think they thought they were making Scottish whisky.”

Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit, by Brian Ashcraft.
144 pages
TUTTLE, Nonfiction.

Certainly, the recipe and techniques may have originated in Scotland, but that doesn’t make the drink produced by Yamazaki or Nikka any more Scottish than Kirin beer is German or Californian wine is French. As with alcohol from any country, the taste echoes “the baseline flavors they have here,” says Ashcraft. “I think subconsciously that informs all the flavors in Japanese whisky.”

Distillery workers and locals don’t consider their whisky to be a foreign product — it’s part of Japanese life and Japanese culture. “You only have to visit the Yamazaki distillery to see the reality,” says Ashcraft. “It’s embedded in Japanese culture.” The distillery has a close association with Shiio Shrine in Osaka where, every year, priests celebrate a festival to mark the founding of the distillery, offering casks of whisky to the gods. At the Nikka distillery in Yoichi, shimenawa garlands protect the pot stills from evil and the maturation warehouse is considered a sacred spot.

It wasn’t always the case, of course. Anyone who saw NHK’s “Massan” drama series (2014-15), which loosely depicted the life of Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife, Rita, will know something of how whisky-making was brought to Japan.

Taketsuru, the son of sake brewers, traveled to Scotland to learn his trade and eventually formed the Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., Ltd. In the 84 years since its founding, the industry has gone through purple patches and rough times, but now Japanese whiskies are winning awards around the world and fetching eye-watering prices at auction.

As a Scot in Japan, I’d long been baffled by the relative pricing of imported Scottish whisky and domestic Japanese brands — the latter being considerably more expensive than the former. I assumed a protectionist tax banding, but Ashcraft dispels this notion: Actually, it’s the scarcity of long-aged whisky.

“To be honest, (distillers) got caught with their pants down,” explains Ashcraft. “For a long time the Japanese whisky business had been on the skids so when it started to take off they were caught off guard. Suddenly people all over Japan started wanting it and suddenly people around the world started wanting it as well and what they would normally sell over several decades was completely gone.” The problem with whisky, from a production point of view, is that it takes time to make the good stuff.

And demand has risen, so much so that Suntory recently announced that their Hakushu 12-year and Hibiki 17-year lines would no longer be available, making this book all the more timely.

Teruhiko Yamamoto, the owner of One Shot Bar Keith in Osaka, and the book’s cover model, agrees.

“There is nothing like this book, even in Japanese,” he says. “Nothing that deals with the history and culture of Japanese whisky.”

Ashcraft is at pains to put Japanese whisky in its context — even down to the spelling. As he explains in the book, “The Japanese whisky tradition comes from Scotland, so the first time the word appeared in a Japanese-English dictionary in 1862 it was with the Scottish spelling: ‘whisky,’ not ‘whiskey.'” The book looks not just at the history of the five main companies and their products — extensive tasting notes provided by whisky expert Yuji Kawasaki also arm the novice drinker when confronted with shelves of tempting bottles — but also at their cultural context.

World War II, for example, played a big part in the story. Though ingredients were hard to come by and domestic customers thin on the ground, government contracts to provide the military with their grog rations kept the distilleries afloat. The American occupation also led to a boom in sales, a fact taken advantage of by less than scrupulous “business men.” One story tells of U.S. soldiers discovering a stash of Suntory bottles filled with “whisky.”

“After experiencing a rough hangover,” Ashcraft writes, “the troops had a bottle analyzed. The drink was a ‘special tonic’ for pilots on kamikaze missions, and contained Benzedrine, strychnine and cocaine.”

One major difference between Scottish and Japanese whisky cultures is — somewhat counter to stereotypes — innovation. While Scotland is mired in regulations and straightjacketed by centuries of tradition, the much younger industry in Japan enjoys freedom to experiment and invent.

Companies take advantage of the varied climate across Japan by opening multiple distilleries, widening their range of products and accessing a deeper palate of flavors. And, after the recent surge and shortage, distillers are catching up.

New lines and the effects of shortages will no doubt mean a second edition of the book in the future, but for the moment, whether you are a skeptic or already a fan of Japanese whisky, Ashcraft’s book contains everything you need to know about Japan’s most desirable of spirits.

Brian Ashcraft writes the monthly On: Games column for The Japan Times on a freelance basis.