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The Way of Japanese Whisky
First published in Escape: The Summer Issue, 2019
In 1919, after a year studying at the University of Glasgow, Masateru Taketsuru took up an apprenticeship at the Longmore Distillery in Scotland. The son of Hiroshima saké brewers, his mission was to learn everything he could about whisky manufacture from the experts and bring the knowledge back to Japan. By 1920 he was ready and, along with his new bride, Scot Rita Cowan, he returned to Japan and opened the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido. He chose Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island, in order to most accurately replicate the climate and mineral make up of Scotland. It took decades of hard work—a process not aided by the Second World War—but whisky slowly took hold in Japan.
When it comes to home-grown products like saké, sushi and swords, Japan loves a ‘way’, a dō. Literally a path, a traditional correct method of doing things: kendō: the way of the sword; kyudō: the way of the bow; bushidō: the way of the warrior. You learn from the master and, through replication, become a master yourself. Innovation is frowned upon. Not so with imported ideas.
In the search for a niche for whisky in Japan, innovation was paramount. The image, too often, was that Japanese whisky was an inferior copy, an image not helped by the gut-rot thrown together for troops in the 30s and 40s and encountered by US soldiers in 1945. Why bother with the knock off when you could just buy the real thing, direct from Scotland where thousands of years of history goes into every barrel? How could Japan compete? The answer is by making something new, something unique, something—dare we say it?—sometimes better.
In terms of whisky, time is our friend. Aged 10 years, 12, 18, 25, the longer the better. But business cannot afford to hang around. The market was small at home, smaller still abroad, the reputation lacking, makers reluctant to produce large quantities and then, almost out of nowhere, as the century turned, so too did the fortunes of Japanese whisky. In 1999 Yamazaki’s 12-year-old single malt hit the market. In 2001, Nikka—the company that grew from Taketsuru’s Yoichi distillery—won the international WWA “Best of the Best” award. In 2003 Bill Murray relaxed with a Hibiki in the movie Lost in Translation. Suddenly Japanese whisky was out there, making waves, getting noticed. It was fashionable, lauded: it was sold in bars on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the beating heart of tourist Scotland.
By innovating, experimenting, being creative, whisky makers had found their market. Today highballs are served everywhere, advertised by only the coolest stars. Whisky bars in Tokyo and Osaka display row after row of domestic brands, the Scottish stuff relegated to the sidelines. Which caused a bit of a problem for manufacturers: there wasn’t enough to go round.
Time was no longer on their side. Demand rose; supply fell. Hibiki’s 17-year-old—the one Bill Murray made famous—was pulled from the market in 2018. Then the Hakushu 12. Suntory followed, limiting their range. Not enough casks were laid down during the lean times, so supplies had to be rationed. Prices soared. A Yamazaki 12-year-old cost 70% more in 2018 than 2016. That year a 50-year-old Yamazaki went for $343000 in auction. Rare and popular lines left the shelves and never returned. For the collector and investor, times are good; for the whisky drinker, purse-strings are strained.
With the Olympics coming to Tokyo in 2020, most distillers are rumoured to be planning something to commemorate—new lines, potential relaunches, special editions—but lips are tightly sealed. In the meantime there are still plenty of affordable Japanese whiskies out there, from the smooth Nikka Miyagikyo single malts to the honey-sweet Suntory Chita. The shortage may last another decade as the water of life ages in barrels up and down the country, but with Japanese whiskies regularly topping international lists and raking in accolades and prizes around the globe, the future is bright. No longer the inferior little brother of Scotch whisky, what started 100 years ago with Masateru Taketsuru’s apprenticeship has come of age.