Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Takeshi Mogi

Mogi-san playing the pipes

The message about Japanese whisky is just beginning to reach a mass audience. It has been the talk of whisky enthusiasts for several years now but when The Sun has a story on it, you know you are no longer dealing with a minority interest. Here at Nonjatta, readership has been increasing steadily. I was just breaking out the champagne ... er, sorry, Japanese whisky... after passing the 2000 individual readers a month mark, only to find Nonjatta's counter recording 120 and 170 individual visitors a day recently. That is a proper readership.

As we begin to make this transition to the mainstream, it is worth looking back at the relatively small group of people who have helped spread the word. Of course, first credit must go to the distilleries themselves. They are making this excellent spirit, after all. Then there are the dozen or so influential reviewers who have been open minded enough to receive and spread the message - the folks associated with Whisky Magazine and its associated events and competitions have been really vital in this, but so have people like the late, great Michael Jackson, Jim Murray, the Malt Maniacs etc. etc. etc. - and innovative distributors like La Maison du Whisky and the Number One Drinks Company that are bringing this stuff to markets outside Japan.

But there is one person who has really kept out of the limelight who has been an absolutely key figure in this movement: an unassuming pharmacist called Takeshi Mogi.

I met Mogi-san last Friday above his family's drug store, a small shop in one of those endless suburbs that stretch outside Tokyo until the mountains ranges stop them. It is a prosperous enough looking area, in that messy, telegraph wire festooned way that Japanese cities have, but there is nothing particularly remarkable about it.

Mogi-san, however, is a very remarkable man. He was taking a couple of hours out from the daily grind of work in the pharmacy on Friday but, as soon as he was in his tasting room, the mild-mannered chemist was transformed into a compelling and unpretentious interpreter of not only whisky, but a whole range of drinks and other interests. After first seriously getting into Scotch in his twenties, he has become a regular visitor to the mother country. His heart has been left in Islay and the highlands and he says he hopes he can "do something to represent Islay and Scotland to Japan". He has a number of websites in Japanese to tell people about Scotland. He even plays the bagpipes and speaks Gaelic! ("When I first went there, I thought I would need it.")

But it is in spreading the world about Japanese whisky that his influence has perhaps been most profound. Mogi-san's website and a miniature bottle of Hakushu 12 was what first switched me on to this whole Japanese whisky thing, but there are many others far more influential than I who have been helped by the Tokyo pharmacist. Much of his work has been behind the scenes: fixing up tastings and establishing contact between key reviewers and the Japanese distillers. You will often find his name in the acknowledgements at the back of general whisky guides but the small print doesn't begin to tell the full story. It is my impression that a great deal of the coverage of Japanese whisky in some of these guides simply would not be possible without Mogi-san's help.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

World Whisky Award winners

Drams from the rising sun have won the two main categories at the 2008 World Whisky Awards.

The consistent success of Japanese whisky in the top international awards has been going on for seven years now. They first won a "Best of the Best" prize back in 2001.

I have always been a bit shy of comparisons with the 1976 "Judgement of Paris" in which New World wines proved they were at least the equal of Europe`s best. That was a real revolution and the wine world has never been the same since. However, in a year in which Japan has won the two most important prizes at one of the key international awards, it does seem whisky has been changed quite fundamentally by the advent of Japanese malts.

The 2008 World Whisky Awards:
Blended Whisky
Suntory Hibiki 30
Single Malt Whisky
Yoichi 1987 20 years old
Whisky Liqueur
Wild Turkey American Honey
Grain Whisky
Compass Box Hedonism
New Release
Glenrothes 25 years old
Blended Malt Whisky
Blue Hanger 30 years old
American Whisky
George T Stagg

The awards, which are run by Whisky Magazine, were announced at the World Whiskies Conference in Glasgow on April 16. Thanks to the The Scotch Blog for live blogging the results.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

God sips sake at the whisky distillery

A Shinto priest at Chichibu

One of the reasons for Japanese whisky's success is the incredible loyalty of its producers to the Scottish distilling methods they began to learn 85 years ago. Step into a Japanese distillery and you might as well be in old country. Everything is within the Scots' tradition. Indeed, sometimes the only divergence is in a stubborn allegiance to traditional ways that even the Scottish have largely abandoned (Yoichi's coal fires, for instance).

But some things are special. Inspired by the scoop last week from John Hawkins about the new Chichibu distillery, I want to take a trip back in time to see how the Chichibu site was prepared for its leading part in the Japanese whisky story. All the images below come from the Kitty's Bar blog (which John alerted me to). Thanks to them for giving us permission to share their work.

In July last year, before building had started at Chichibu, a Shinto priest from the Chichibu shrine was brought to the site to conduct a "Jichinsai" ground breaking ceremony. I am not a shinto expert. Glib summaries of other people's religious ceremonies are always a hazardous business, but my understanding is that it is believed that the building will meet misfortune if the kami (god) in the land is not placated.

Talking to the land

First, the kami of the earth was addressed by the priest and a prayer for the construction was made. Offerings were put on the altar and Ichiro took a ceremonial first hoe full. I think I am right in saying that you can see a glass of sake on the altar (below) and bottles of sake beside Ichiro (second photo below). Sake is as closely associated with Shinto ritual as wine is with Christianity. Isn't there something delightful about kami being propitiated with sake for the benefit of a whisky distillery?


Ichiro cuts the land

Placing a sacred Sakaki branch

When it was all over, it was straight back to business:

Discussing the plans

Only nine months later and Chichibu distillery is built and already up and running! Let's hope the spirit continues to be good to all of us.

All the images are from Kitty's Bar blog, who gave permission to use them.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A visit to the new distillery at Chichibu

Ichiro Akuto at the new Chichibu distillery

Update: The ground breaking ceremony at Chichibu
Update: I think I have located the distillery on the Japanese single malt distillery map.

The hottest story in Japanese whisky right now is the the new Chichibu distillery, a really heart warming tale of the son of a centuries old alcohol making family being brought to ruin in his attempts to make top quality whisky and then picking himself up and building a brand new distillery at Chichibu.

Well, John Hawkins has gone and got the scoop. John is a good friend of Nonjatta`s, having previously shared his Tokyo whisky bar [1,2] knowledge with us. He now lives in the UK but a recent visit to his old Japanese haunts brought a real coup: a visit to Chichibu, a meeting with Ichiro Akuto himself, and some wonderful photographs of the new distillery [full gallery here]. He has been kind enough to write up an account for Nonjatta:

"I had been fortunate enough to meet Ichiro Akuto on several occasions previously. Akuto-san is a friend of Watanabe-san, the owner of Quercus - my favourite whisky bar in Tokyo. So I had met him in Quercus a couple of times, in addition to his appearance at Whisky Live Tokyo in 2006. I was a big fan of the Ichiro's Malt series - the fine whiskies from the old Chichibu distillery (also known as Hanyu and Golden Horse), and so was naturally very excited to hear about Akuto-san's project to build a new distillery in Chichibu.

Ahead of my most recent visit to Japan I had heard the good news that the new distillery was now complete, and Akuto-san had been granted a license to start distilling. Better still, Watanabe-san had managed to arrange for us to be among the first people to visit the new distillery, shortly after it began production.

Chichibu is about an hour and a half by train from central Tokyo, and then from Chichibu station there was a 15 minute taxi ride to get to the distillery itself. As the taxi came over the brow of a hill, the distinctive pagoda roof of the new distillery came into sight, nestled amongst the mountains of Saitama. The sense of excitement in the taxi was palpable.

We were greeted by Akuto-san at the entrance to the distillery, and in that delightful Japanese way we took off our shoes and put on slippers before entering the building.

The tour started in the milling room, where Akuto-san showed us the two types of malt he is currently using. One of these is imported from Germany, the other from England. The mill itself was also imported from the UK. His intention is to eventually source barley locally from Saitama prefecture and he is currently discussing this with local farmers.

He has also discovered that he can source peat within Saitama and so eventually he will be malting and peating his own barley, using raw materials entirely from the local area. I couldn't help but admire Akuto-san's commitment to an area of Japan which some might consider a bit of a backwater. It isn't particularly famous for anything, although I'd like to think in the future Saitama will be synonymous with fine whisky.

After leaving the milling room we moved on to the main hall of the distillery building, where the majority of the rest of the whisky making process is carried out. We started here with the mash tun and, as far as I could tell, the production of the wort adhered largely to the standard process. Akuto-san mentioned that he had recently found a local farmer to take away the draff to use as animal feed (although thankfully he avoided making the now somewhat weary "happy cows" gag). He later told us that some of the distillery apparatus had been purchased from a local brewery. I think the mash tun may have come from there.
The main hall

Next up were the wash backs - there were five of these and they had a distinctly Japanese look to them - to my eyes similar to those used in sake brewing. They were made of a Japanese oak, mizunara (Quercus crispula). Akuto-san said that as the wood was still very new. They were having to use higher than normal quantities of yeast initially to counteract the tannin.

From there we proceded to the piece de la resistance: the stills. There is just one wash still and one spirit still, both fairly squat and similar in appearance to each other. Both were manufactured by Forsyth's and imported from Scotland. Akuto-san has been particularly meticulous here, travelling to Scotland on at least three separate occasions to discuss their design and construction. To my eyes they were quite similar to the stills at Kilchoman - the same sort of size and shape - although I'm sure a distiller would shake his head at that.
Ichiro Akuto and the wash still

Distillation at Chichibu only started within the last few weeks. Even though our visit was on a Saturday, we were fortunate enough to see the distillery in full swing. We could actually see the new make in the spirit safe. We'll have to wait and see how it tastes.

The distillery currently consists of three buildings - the main distillery building, the maltings, and the warehouse. After leaving the main distillery building we took a quick look around the maltings, with that fabulous pagoda roof, which to me looks even more at home atop a Japanese distillery. Currently, the building is being used mainly for storage. They aren't ready to do their own malting yet.

We moved on to the warehouse. This was also a glimpse of things to come. At the time of our visit, there were only a few dozen barrels in there and none had yet been filled. Akuto-san expects to start filling barrels in April. All of the spirit produced until then will be stored temporarily in vats. The foundations of a fourth building, a visitors center, are being laid.

It will be several years before we can really know what the finished product tastes like, but everything about the distillery and the great man behind it gives me a very good feeling. We may be witnessing a classic in the making. I believe Akuto-san is already taking orders for advance purchases of casks. I am extremely tempted."
The warehouse (above and below)

John also has another post about this visit
on his own, excellent blog.

I am not sure, but after a lot of searching, think I have pinned down the address of the distillery:

49 Midori ga oka, Chichibu Shi, Saitama, Japan