Sunday, September 28, 2014

Japan switches on to whisky's story

Post by Chris Bunting

I am really excited.

On Monday (29th September, 8 am), Japan’s national broadcaster NHK will start screening “Massan”, a retelling of the story of Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish-born wife Rita. It will be the first time that the creation myth of Japanese whisky (1,2) has really been told to most of the Japanese nation. And it couldn’t get much more mainstream than this: NHK’s “asadora,” or morning drama, has been a fixture in many Japanese families’ breakfast times since 1961. The asadora has routinely attracted some of the biggest audiences on Japanese television.

Massan will be screened six days a week from 8 am to 8.15am for six months. Millions of Japanese people will get to know Ellie (the fictionalised Rita Taketsuru) and Masaharu Kameyama (Masataka Taketsuru). It is going to be quite a ride, taking us through from 1920 when Masataka Taketsuru and Rita returned from Scotland with the secrets of whisky making, to, well, who knows when? (NHK are very tight lipped.) I wonder whether we will see Ellie and Masaharu grow old together?

From the previews that have been showing since last weekend, we do know that the early episodes will feature plenty of material on Taketsuru’s relationship with Kinjiro Kamoi (in real life, Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory Whisky), who set up Yamazaki distillery with Taketsuru in 1923, and lots of arguments and reconciliations between Rita and Taketsuru.

The role of Ellie, played by American actress Charlotte Kate Fox, is a real departure for NHK: the first time a foreigner has been cast in a prominent role in the “asadora”. She didn’t know any Japanese before taking the role, but, from the little we can see from the previews, she has studied mightily and has a screen charisma that may just carry this off. The relationship between Rita and Masataka, which is really going to be central, looks quite compelling.

The subjects and characters in the asadora are refreshed all the time, but it is usually a modern historical drama (not too much delving into the 17th Century) focussed on the the struggles of a female heroine to make her way in life. I think NHK have hinted that, unusually, the male lead (Taketsuru, played by Tetsuji Tamayama) will be the central character this time, but I would be surprised if it works out like that. The crux of this drama has to be Rita: she is the one who arrives in Japan in 1920 without any idea what she is headed for, who faces bitter recriminations for marrying Taketsuru, who is harassed during the rise of Japanese ultra nationalism (how are NHK going to deal with that?) and who has to choose between her homeland and Japan as a world war looms. Her’s are the grand themes.

The music, “Mugi no uta” by Miyuki Nakajima (it is the first part of this clip), seems to be all about Rita. It starts a bit bagpipey and Scottish and then progresses into a more recognisably Nakajima-like  power ballad about losing touch with people and places for the sake of a loved one. One of lyrics goes something like: “Barley seeds don’t fly, but songs may do, so if this reaches home tell them that I will lead my life here.”

We can also expect plenty of funny bits, some pretty safe family viewing (not too much sex or decadence on the asadora), and not a lot of English (the idea of the morning drama is that it can be easily followed by normal people amid the hustle and bustle of a morning routine; subtitles are not good).

The previews have given some interesting hints of what is in store. The producers may not have gone to Scotland to film any scenes about Taketsuru studying whisky making--or, at least, those scenes may be done as flashbacks. The drama seems to be starting on his and Rita’s return (which has the advantage of removing the need for loads of English dialogue). The Scottish scenes may have been shot in Hokkaido (??). There has certainly been some filming at Nikka’s Yoichi distillery, where some original stills once used by Taketsuru were restored for the use of the drama. There has also been filming at Takehara in Hiroshima. Taketsuru came from the Taketsuru sake brewing family and their brewery seems to have been used in filming some sake scenes. Many Japanese people are going to be learning a lot about alcohol in the coming weeks.

Other titbits from the previews:

  • Ken Sakurai, the chief producer, said the concept for Massan came from a general wish to make a drama exploring borders and different cultures. He was in a bar and picked up a booklet about Taketsuru’s life and the idea began to germinate. His general take on Taketsuru is that he was not a genius and that his ability to make connections with others led to something really special. 
  • The famous astronaut Mamoru Mohri appeared on one of the preview shows to talk about his childhood recollections of Taketsuru and Rita. His family home was right next to the Yoichi distillery. Rita used to bring her dog to be treated in Mohri’s father’s veterinary surgery and his dad also played go with Taketsuru. He recalled one occasion when Taketsuru landed his helicopter in his school’s grounds during a bear hunt. Taketsuru liked shooting bears. 
  • Charlotte Kate Fox has talked a little about her approach to Ellie/Rita: “Ellie is based on Rita Cowan. Although the integrity and structure of Rita’s life story remain, Ellie is a completely different character, so I have not been strictly bound to adhere to who Rita was. Ellie is wonderful. She is sort of Doris Day–like, in the fact that she always, always sees the best in people and in situations. I love getting to experience “newness” with her. In a way she is childlike, as she is learning everything for the first time. The language, the customs, the cuisine, and of course what it is like to be married to someone from another country. That is not to say that she is not strong. She has a deep love and belief in her husband and his dream. She supports him through incredible hardships. She always stands up for what she believes in and is not afraid to show her emotions, which is sometimes problematic in Japan. She is dynamic and funny and has a diamond-like perseverance.” Lots more interesting stuff in this interview.
There is a bit of a superstition that any asadora with the Japanese character for “n” in the name is always a hit. Massan has and “n” in it, so things are looking up! I think this drama may actually have quite a profound effect on Japanese whisky--Japanese people have been getting back into their whisky in recent years (1,2), largely on the back of a very successful Suntory advertising campaign, but the asadora is bigger than any advertising campaign and it will be associating the founding myths of Japanese whisky with narratives about Japanese identity in a powerful way.

Certainly, Nikka, the company Taketsuru founded, are getting excited. They set up a twitter account on September 23 and began tweeting about their history. They also have some special edition highballs out to coincide with Massan. The Rita highball is a mix of whisky, soda and apple juice, while the Taketsuru highball has a pure malt whisky base.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Whisky Live 2014 Report

Post by Aaron Chan, Hong Kong
Yet another great year! If you missed this year’s Tokyo International Bar Show / Whisky Live, you will have to wait another year… probably. Not to worry, though: here is a short overview of some of the highlights of the weekend.

The Whisky Live weekend actually started on Friday night, when 40 lucky members of Bond #1 were invited to a pre-opening tasting at the Park Hotel. Whisky Live director Damian Riley-Smith had brought a very special bottle with him, The Michael Jackson Special Blend. This bottle was a vatting of over 2,000 opened bottles found at the late whisky author's private collection after his passing. Drinking this was like drinking the history of whisky itself.
Although there were no commemorative Japanese bottlings this year (as there were in the past years), there were a few outstanding special festival bottlings from our friends at BenRiach, Glenglassaugh, Isle of Arran, Cadenhead’s and Samaroli. The “’S Peaty” from Samaroli is a vatting of Islay drams distilled in 1995. Contrary to its name, it is not all that peaty, but very smooth, well balanced and elegant. This – as well as the other bottlings – are already available from Japanese retailers so do grab a bottle before it’s too late.
Another must-visit spot every year at Whisky Live is Ichiro Akuto’s Venture Whisky.  This year, Akuto san unveiled a new Chibidaru 2014. He also had an interesting experimental Chichibu matured in a sherry butt available for free tasting at the event. The 2014 Chibidaru is from the 2010 vintage and spent its entire life in so-called chibidaru (the distillery’s original quarter cask). There was no information as to when it would be released officially but when we have any further information, you’ll be the first to know.
Our friends from Nine Leaves were also at the show to promote their “Clear” rum-spirit released earlier this year and “Angel’s Half”, their 6-month old rum. There were two versions of “Angel’s Half” – one matured in a cognac cask, the other in American oak – both very promising.
Aside from these wonderful drams, punters could also try some more exotic (and expensive) drams by purchasing tasting vouchers. It’s a pity they didn’t offer the White Bowmore, like last year, but there was still plenty to titillate the taste buds – among others, a 1968 Glenglassaugh, a 1974 Bunnahabhain 1974 (aka “Infinity”) by Samaroli, a Glenfarclas Family Cask 1976, a 1973 Glen Grant, Talisker 30 Years Old, and so on. We missed Dave Broom – who couldn’t be at this year’s edition due to commitments in Europe – but all in all, it was a great weekend.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hakushu & Yamazaki Single Casks for Whisky Shop W. 4th Anniversary

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Photo courtesy of Whisky Shop W.
We had already picked up rumours last year, in the run-up to the 3rd anniversary of Whisky Shop W. (Suntory’s flagship whisky store, located in their HQ building in Osaka) that it was getting harder and harder – even for them! – to arrange single cask bottlings. Well, they weren’t kidding. To ‘celebrate’ their 4th anniversary, they have just released two single casks - a Yamazaki and a Hakushu as usual – in … 190ml sample bottles! Whatever the reason for this decision, it is clear now that single cask bottlings are no longer a priority for Suntory – which probably explains why (in the wake of Karuizawa and Hanyu) prices for old Yamazaki and Hakushu single casks – from the days when they were everywhere and cheap, but relatively unknown and unloved – keep rising on the secondary market.

The 4th anniversary releases can only be purchased as a set, i.e. one of each. The Yamazaki is drawn from a Spanish oak ex-sherry cask (vintage 2003, 55%abv), the Hakushu from a White oak hogshead (vintage 2000, 60%abv). Price for a set of two 190ml-sample bottles is 6,000 yen. More than a few people – when we told them about these new sample bottle releases  – wondered if this was a deliberate strategy to make certain Japanese whiskies (from very much active distilleries) seem rarer than they really are. Time will tell…

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

3 New Shinanoya Releases

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Busy as ever, the guys at Shinanoya have just announced details of not one, not two, but three exclusive bottlings: two whiskies and a rum – all single casks bottled at cask-strength.

There seems to be a bit of a Caroni-boom at the moment. For their first new rum bottling in three years, Shinanoya teamed up with A.D. Rattray to do a split-bottling (like they did with their Bowmore release a while ago): they have bottled half of the cask now (Barrel #105, 1997) and that is batch 1 (125 bottles) and leaving half in the cask for an additional four-month maturation period (meaning batch 2 will be ready after December). Reasonably priced at 8,980 yen a bottle, this is sure to be an instant hit.

Talking of instant hits… here’s another one. Single cask Islay malts are becoming harder and harder to source. The guys at Shinanoya managed to persuade The Whisky Exchange to let them bottle a special 15yo Laphroaig (a first-fill barrel) to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Yokohama bar ‘Sheep’. This yielded 175 bottles – it’ll be interesting to see how many minutes it will take for those to be gone!

The last offering is a 26yo ‘Celebration of the Cask’ Tomatin (1987 hogshead #508), sourced by Morrison & Mackay. Ridiculously priced at 13,800 yen a bottle (where else can you find a single cask of this caliber at a comparable price?), this is bound to attract a lot of attention, too. They are not making life easy, the folks at Shinanoya… hard choices!

Friday, August 29, 2014

TIBS/Whisky Live Tokyo 2014 Preview

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
In a few weeks time (September 20-21), the third edition of the Tokyo International Bar Show / Whisky Live will be upon us. It’s the undisputed highlight of the whisky year in Japan so we thought it was high time we spoke to the masterminds behind the show to see what they’ve got up their sleeve.

Nonjatta: Every year, there’s a specific theme. What banner is this year’s edition organized under?

TIBS: The theme/concept of TIBS 2014 is “The Gift from Autumn”. We would like visitors to enjoy spirits from all around the world and bar culture, in conjunction with the nice Japanese food of Autumn.

Nonjatta: TIBS / Whisky Live Tokyo will be held in yet another venue this year.

TIBS: That’s right. Central Tokyo is surprisingly short of quality venues that are both big enough and affordable. We chose Prism Hall at Tokyo Dome City because it was exactly what we wanted - in terms of location, space and convenience.

Nonjatta: TIBS / Whisky Live seems to be reinventing itself with every edition. What is new and worth spotlighting about this year’s edition?
TIBS: As overseas guests, we are inviting Charles Schumann, and Anistatia Miller & Jared Brown. Charles Schumann is based in Munich and he is a leading bartender in Germany. He is the author of American Bar, a book famous among bartenders worldwide. We look forward to quizzing him about new trends on the European bar scene.

Anistatia Miller & Jared Brown are the co-founders of the Museum of the American Cocktail and are known as authors of drink-related books such as Mixologist: The Journal of the American Cocktail and Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink.

The idea is for these guests to provide ‘academic’ seminars – not just the usual ‘cocktail performances’ – and it is our hope that visitors will be able to deepen their knowledge of spirits and their appreciation of the art of the bartender.

On the Main Stage, we will once again be holding the Nadeshiko Cup, a bartending challenge by female bartenders. Also scheduled is a Sherry Cocktail Competition, and that is a first in the history of the BarShow. We’ve also planned a barista-bartender collaboration seminar. We should also mention that TIBS will also be the testing site for the Cocktail Examination, administered for the first time this year.
Detailed information about the various programs and participants will be up on the official TIBS / Whisky Live site on Monday (September 1st).

Nonjatta: Every year there are official bar show bottlings of Japanese whiskies. These are usually instant sell-outs. What can you say about this year’s commemorative bottlings?

TIBS: There are no official bottlings scheduled for the show this year. However, there a few weeks left before we open the doors – and one or two discussion are still underway – so … never say never.