Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whisky Live Tokyo 2015 (1): Dave Broom Comes Alive!

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Photos © Julen Esteban-Pretel

In a few weeks’ time, Dave Broom will be back in Japan for Whisky Live Tokyo (September 19, noon-6pm, Akiba Square) – after being sorely missed for more than two years. He’ll also be hosting the pre-Whisky Live party at the Park Hotel the night before (so that’s, September 18, 7:30-9:30pm). Ahead of his return, we picked his brain about various developments on the whisky scene since the last time he was here… and there’s a funny road story, too, so do read all the way to the end.
It’s been a while since you’ve graced us with your presence in Japan – what have you been working on since “Whisky: The Manual”?

You make it sound like a royal visit! The only reason I sadly couldn’t make it last year was a clash of dates. I’m delighted to be coming back. What’s happened? I’ve been busy. A new edition of “The World Atlas of Whisky” has been written, as has “Gin: The Manual”. I’m currently working on the third in the series, on rum. I’ve started work on a new website www.scotchwhisky.com which is launching soon. I’ve been around the world a few times - including a couple of trips to Mexico to see agave spirit production.

These days, distilleries are popping up like mushrooms – not just in Scotland, but in other places around the world as well. It must be a nightmare to keep you “World Atlas of Whisky” updated! What are your thoughts on this development?

It’s fantastic news. It is certainly challenging to try and keep abreast of what is going on but that’s a nice problem to have. We’re currently working out what the 3rd edition will be like! The development is a positive one. New distillers will have new ideas and help stimulate interest in this thing called whisky. The best are asking that question: “what is whisky?” and how can I make one which reflects my place. By challenging the orthodoxies of whisky production they are refreshing the category.

Several new distillery projects – independently owned – are in the works in Japan, too. What would your advice be to the people in charge of these projects?

New distillers around the world will occasionally ask me this. My feeling is that they have to discover their individuality (in terms of the whisky or whiskies they are trying to make). It is pointless to try and compete with Suntory or Nikka. New distilleries need to learn from the established whisky makers but also be true to themselves. That means looking at their surroundings: what grows around them, what techniques are used for smoking food (you don’t have to use peat to make smoky whisky!), how does your place speak to you? Those new distilleries will all be smaller – they will be local – so that sense of place therefore has to be more heavily emphasized.

Also, don’t rush your whisky to the market. Release it when it is showing it has darted it journey through maturity.

My advice to these distillers around the world who ask me this question is “go to see Ichiro Akuto.” Learn from him but don’t try and copy his whisky. Go and make your own.
Another recent development is the proliferation of no-age statement whiskies and the exponential increase in cost for the consumer. Understandably, fans moan a lot about this twin trend. Do you think it’s likely that this ‘trend’ will be reversed, or do you think we’d better get used to this state of affairs?

They are two separate issues.

No Age [NAS] is an inevitable consequence of an unforeseen upturn in demand for whisky globally. Distillers around the world – be they in Scotland, America or Japan – could not have foreseen this 12, 15, 18 years ago. Consequently, there are not sufficient stocks. NAS is the result.
When well handled, there is nothing inherently wrong with a NAS whisky. Taking an age statement off the label allows the whisky maker to use younger and older whiskies to achieve a balanced and complex result.

You could argue that age statements gave the false impression that ‘older = better’. That’s not true. There is a difference between age and maturity. Age is a number, maturity is a character. That said, the NAS whiskies which are appearing should, in my mind, be as good if not better than the whiskies they are replacing, especially if they are more expensive. Many are. Some, sadly, are not.

Will the trend be reversed? I think we will see age statements creeping back as the stock situation eases but there have also been a lot of positive learnings from NAS so they won’t go away.

On price. The rise in the very top end is eyebrow-raising certainly. That said, looking at prices in the UK and other European markets over the past decade, you'll see that standard malts haven’t risen dramatically (apart from a couple of notable exceptions), and while premium has moved up a little more steeply in general, the whiskies are still fairly priced.  It is the top end which has gone ballistic. In other words, there is still value to be had.

You could argue that whisky was seriously underpriced for too long. The industry was giving away its finest whiskies and we all got used to the fact. It was great! Those days have gone. We have to get used to the fact that at the top end there will be bottles which we cannot afford. The prices aren’t coming down again.
As someone who’s been a close observer of the Japanese whisky scene for well over a decade, what do you feel has changed over the past few years, and what are the challenges facing the industry here?

The most obvious change has been the arrival of NAS. In more general terms, it has been the amazing rise in interest globally in Japanese whisky. Everyone wants it - which then puts more pressure, in the short to medium term, on stock. In some ways, it is a nice problem to have; in others, it is frustrating for producers because they want to be able to sell their whisky to as many people as possible. New capacity has gone in and the situation will ease. My concern is whether by the time stock is available once more, the market will have moved on. Japan may no longer be the hot new style - it could be Canada, or bourbon, or Ireland. Producers therefore need to achieve a very clever balancing act to maintain interest in Japanese whisky internationally during this difficult period of transition. One way could be through blends.

The other thing has been the way that Japan has been slower to embrace the new small distilling trend. Things are now changing but there still aren’t enough new whisky distilleries. It is hard to build a category when there are only two producers - that’s the situation Ireland faced for many years. Any industry needs to have choice, different approaches, different aromas and flavours, different philosophies. It will happen in Japan I am sure, but the start of this natural evolution has been slower than I anticipated. It still baffles me why Karuizawa was closed at a time of peak demand for Japanese whisky and why Gotemba isn’t seen internationally.

Just out of curiosity: what’s the last dram you’ve had that blew you away? What’s the first place you want to go to when you get back to Japan?

The new Octmore 7.1 from Bruichladdich. Still young but already complex. As a statement of intent, it is hugely impressive. I’m about to taste 12 new whiskies though so that answer may well change by midday.

In Tokyo: Star Bar, Bar Zoetrope and then Golden Gai. The next day, head to buy vinyl.

Do you have any funny ‘road stories’ from your travels in Japan over the years (you can change names, to protect the innocent, obviously)?

I think the time when - in a spirit of celebration - we unwittingly broke every rule of onsen behaviour. Thinking we would be the only people bathing at midnight, we took a bottle of cask strength whisky [Karuizawa, to be precise] to the sauna. Mistake No 1. There was a Japanese man having a quiet contemplative time as four huge, hairy... naked gaijin burst through the door. He politely declined our offer of drink and left. Speedily.

After that, we went to the baths themselves. The first was a large pool. The second, however, was a tiny black cube only accessed through a low, crooked passageway which stopped any light from penetrating. We silently groped our way in (still clutching the whisky) and felt for the ledge on which to sit. One of our party - a large man - then lowered himself down onto what he thought was the ledge but turned out to be the lap of the Japanese man who had fled from the sauna. There was considerable confusion.

In our next post about Whisky Live/Modern Malt Market 2015, we’ll talk about what visitors can expect from this edition… masterclasses, special bottlings, rare drams for tasting, … Watch this space!

2 comments:

Aaron C. said...

I think I know which onsen they went to :)

Anonymous said...

From: Jeff

“Nothing inherently wrong with a NAS whisky”? Guess again; there’s only “nothing wrong” if you misframe the issue as one of quality.

Quality problems come and go, and are largely in the eye of the beholder. The real lasting and central issue with NAS, however, is the ridiculous idea that a maturation process which the industry itself intentionally undertakes and tracks at very significant and passed-on cost can supposedly have its relevance switched on and off by a marketing/labeling decision to simply not discuss age where it’s found to be inconvenient for sales purposes. The problem isn’t the quality of the products that NAS is or isn’t applied to; it’s that the marketing itself has no internal logic: age, and age information, matters here but not over there, and we’ll make that decision for you while tracking our casks. Comment on that from an expert? Not a prayer.

Those who insist on presenting NAS as some “type” of whisky or process (and it’s not multivintaging) should reflect upon what NAS means: No Age Statement. As a designation, it ONLY refers to what you’re NOT being told, nothing more, nothing less; it refers to an arbitrarily-imposed lack of information and, again, not a process (beyond obfuscation, that is). Obfuscation can’t be done “well” and it would help if Mr. Broom would just admit that it shouldn’t be done at all.

Selling more young product at higher prices may well be an inevitable outcome of higher demand, or it may just be bean-counters making hay while the sun shines – I certainly wouldn’t trust Dr. Nick Morgan to tell me which – but even if driven “by necessity”, using young product and the “need” to withhold its age aren’t the same thing. People who don’t care about age so as not to be put off by no age statements are put off by low age statements? Is everyone who just wants to know what they’re drinking really any more “ageists” then the “ageist” distillers who mature whisky for an “unnecessary” 20, 30 or 40 years? If this old stuff would really be “just as good/the same” at less than 10 “with the proper casking”, then why are “the experts” losing 2% per year TO age it WHILE telling me that I’M “a hothead with an age fixation”? Regardless of what anyone thinks of the final result on any given whisky, age maturation is intentionally undertaken to change a whisky’s character and, that being the case, age is not “irrelevant” for any whisky, whether its age is hidden or not.

The overall tone of Broom’s comment is one of a “friend to the industry” but, if he and other experts stepped further outside the conventional scope of that self-designated role for a moment and told the truth about NAS, they might prove to be the best real friends that the whisky industry, and whisky consumers, ever had. Remember those old ads for personal hygiene products – “sometimes, even your closest friends won’t tell you”? That applies here: something clearly and fundamentally stinks about NAS and it’s the industry’s closest friends who are silent about it.