Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Book Review: Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend

Japanese Whisky, Scotch BlendThe Story of Masataka Taketsuru, his Scottish wife, and the Japanese whisky industry
by Olive Checkland (Edinburgh, 1998)
Paperback, 160 pages. £10.99.
Buy at Amazon

Checkland has classic material here: the true story of how one Japanese man travelled alone to Scotland and stole the secrets of traditional whisky making, fell in love with a Scottish woman, brought her home to Japan, where he made himself into a Japanese whisky baron and where she lived the rest of a life which spanned a devastating war with her home country.

Checkland provides a great source of information on one of the key personalities of Japanese whisky history, Masataka Taketsuru. The first chapter`s account of Taketsuru`s training in Scotland between 1918 and 1920 has a depth of detail that is not rivaled in English and quite possibly not in Japanese either. Checkland cites her sources with proper academic references and bibliographies, making it very easy to follow up her work with a fresh eye. I expect to be thumbing this paperback a good deal as I try to put together a better history section on this site.


There is a disappointing side to the book. Checkland was an established scholar who wrote several books about modern Japan, so I am surprised to find her general descriptions of Japan so unreliable. For instance, she quotes a campaigning political theorist's view of all women in pre-war Japan as completely dependent on men as a description of reality and continues: "Even after 1945, when some rights were granted, women in Japan were subservient and were living entirely on their men". The overall impression is given that it was almost unheard of for women to live independent lives.

In fact, the ubiquity of the "Japanese housewife" was to a large extent a particular phenomenon of the latter part of the 20th century (the institution is now being undermined again). The Japan Chronicle reported that Isabel McCausland, a lecturer in sociology at Kobe college, told a meeting in March 1923 that: "56 per cent of the wage earners in this country were women, while in Germany the proportion was only 20 per cent of women and the United States 14 per cent. Among factory workers in Japan the proportion of females to males is 3 to 1" (March 8, Japan Chronicle, 1923). Many of these jobs were unpleasant and confining but to portray Japanese women as uniformly passive recipients of male financial support is misleading. It was perhaps true that upper middle class women of the sort Rita Taketsuru was mixing with were more dependent on men but Checkland does not qualify her description.

This is by no means an isolated example. The text is peppered with over simplifications and misunderstandings. When reading Checkland, it is probably safest to ignore her descriptions of Japanese society past and present.

It is more of a problem for the book that the description of the love story between Masataka Taketsuru and Rita Taketsuru is also unsatisfying. Checkland goes in for a lot of groundless speculation about the couple's motivations and intentions and has a tendency to try to logically analyse a love affair, always a hazardous thing to do. She also seems determined to make Rita into a tragic figure, which is not convincing on the evidence presented in the book. Certainly Rita went through some difficult times, especially in the four years that Britain and Japan were at war, but every time Checkland qualifies her general tragic framework with some new evidence that Rita was in fact quite happy at some time during the 40 years of her life in Japan, it makes you wonder why she seems driven to write sentences like: "Only time revealed to her the high price of the decision she had made [to marry Taketsuru]."

The whisky chapters are touched in places by this tendentiousness. For instance, at one point she is straining hard to portray the war years as very difficult for Japanese whisky makers (there is some evidence that Taketsuru's company actually found its feet under military patronage in the war). Anyway, she writes:
It was a sorry state of affairs when a bottle of Grade 1 Nikka whisky could be bartered for a pair of heavy rubber boots or even a straw bag of rice.

Hasn't it ever been thus? A pair of heavy rubber boots often costs more than a bottle of the best whisky [eg]. I don't know how big the bag of rice was but the larger bags down at the supermarket here rival the whiskies. This is just a trivial example but, throughout this book, you get the feeling that the author has decided what the story will be before she looks at the evidence.


Despite my grouching, I am glad I have "Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend" on my shelf. Its spine is already cracked. That, in the end, is the real test of any book isn't it?

An Old bottle

Update 15.2.2010: More on dating Suntory Old bottles

There is a story behind this whisky bottle. It was recovered near a submerged World War II tank in the Marshall islands by this chap. The Marshalls were fought over by the Japanese and the Americans in the war and there are relics from that fight scattered all over the islands.

Was this bottle left by a Japanese serviceman during the war? It had obviously been down there a while and Japanese officers were prodigious whisky drinkers. In fact, Nikka's Yoichi distillery was designated a naval installation during the war and given privileged access to supplies to make sure it pumped out enough of the stuff. Here is a close up, with the Suntory embossing clearly visible:

That might have been the way it happened, but the round, embossed bottle has a distinctly post war Japan feel about it for me. I asked the fellow who found it what is written on the bottle. You can see the "Suntory Whisky" clearly enough in the photo but he tells me the slogan curling over its shoulder is "A Blend of the Choice Whiskies". I hate to be a spoil sport but my feeling is that this is a bottle of "Suntory Old Whisky". Suntory "Old" was first released in 1950. It has had several rebrandings since then but the bottle shape has stayed constant. It seems to fit the shape of the bottle in the water:

Recovered bottle and 1950 bottle

I think we can date it a bit more precisely than that. The early bottles in this line bore the slogan: "A Blend of Ancient Whiskies". That was still on the bottle until at least 1968. The first bottle with "A Blend of the Choice Whiskies" I have found is the 1994 "Suntory Old Whisky - Mild and Smooth". Was it chucked in the water by some Japanese tourist? (Update: Unlikely, says the chap who found it: "There are no Japanese tourists out here. For that matter there are no tourists out here from anywhere. The only way to get out here is if you work or are from here.") Was it bought by a local or was it washed ashore after being jettisoned from some cruise liner or perhaps it floated all the way from Japan itself? It is a different kind of story from the romanticism of a doomed Japanese soldier taking a final sip before meeting his fate but it is symbolic in its own way: of Japan's rampant post war prosperity.

I suppose I had better drink the whisky after that long shaggy dog story. I don't have any of the "Suntory Old Whisky - Mild and Smooth" to hand, just the relaunched 2006 version:

The Suntory Old Whisky
Type: Blended

Smells of marmalade and varnish with very faint earth and undergrowth notes slightly complicating things. The taste is quite nice: a very thin caramel with grainy harshness and plastics peeking through, but very suppressed. Just creeps above the two star threshold, but barely. Though a blend, it is too pricey to qualify for the Mizuwari Death Match.

40 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 1,504 yen

All pictures of the recovered bottle used with the permission of Island Life.

Miyagikyou 15 - "sherry and spices"

Again, my normal warning not to take my tastings too seriously. I drank this on a night out and didn`t have my shoddy tasting hat on. The nose had vanilla and mince pies in it. It tasted a bit lighter than the Yoichi 15 but not thin by any means: a sweetish sherry, spicy, almost salty. She doesn`t leave quickly enough to leave you feeling used, but doesn`t stay the night either.

Reviews by more reliable types

A 2006 bottling got an average of 84/100 points ("recommendable") from 13 reviewers on the Maltmaniacs.org website.
Serge Valentin, Whisky Fun, December 28, 2006, was one of the less enthusiastic of those tasters. He gave 79/100 ("better than average") to the 2006 bottling. Valentin wrote he found the nose subtle and delicate. In the mouth, it had an obvious wood influence: "vanilla, soft spices and sort of dryness" with gingerbread and "soft paprika". There was "lots happening" but then it got "a bit mainstreamish and ‘modern’ ... Yet, the balance is rather perfect and there’s even a little salt at the finish, together with notes of white pears."

45 per cent
Price (May 2007)
700 ml - 10,493 yen

(Please note the dates on reviews if they are provided. There may be significant variation between different years of a single malt brand)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Second Mizuwari Death Match

The Champion: Torys
The Challenger: Red Suntory Whisky

The second Mizuwari Death Match pits champion and post war favourite Uncle "It's Good, It's Cheap" Torys against Red Suntory Whisky. They can't be separated on dirt cheap price. On paper, this looks like a proper scrap. Add the water and ice:

Good old Uncle Torys. Sweet and light, just a little touch of aniseed. Red is stronger, grainy, and then a petrol forecourt aftertaste makes it through the water. This match looked even but Uncle Torys had his man down in seconds with an effortless neckchop.

The result: Torys retains the boater for a second week.

Red Suntory Whisky - "grain and petrol"

Just like the Torys, this is pretty horrible when taken neat - I got the judders just trying to swallow it - but these cheap end Suntorys are not designed for drinking neat. This one traces its lineage back to the "Akafuda" (Red Label) put on the market by Suntory in 1930. It says it was made with "the same traditional craftsmanship as the Akafuda" which tells me two things: 1. The original blend was so foul that they have had to update it for the modern palate. 2. Never trust a label that talks about "traditional craftsmanship".

It has the same cloyingness as the neat Torys but this time, instead of a saccharine sweetness, I got a gob-in-your-face, nut-you-in-the-forehead grainy taste with a nasty grain and petrol aftertaste. Couldn`t face anymore of it undiluted. It might taste better with ice. You might be able to convince yourself you are some kind of hard-edged whisky downing beatnik poet or something. I went for the easy option and made it into what it was designed to be drunk as: a mizuwari. I added two measures of water and a glass full of ice and entered it in the Second Mizuwari Death Match Challenge.

39 per cent
Price (May 2007)
640 ml - 834 yen

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Japanese Whisky History (1854-1918) - The Jurassic Period

Jurassic Period // Unlocking Scotland I // Unlocking Scotland II //Whisky and war// Whisky and war II // Pioneer of Single Malts // Kumaso scandal

It is not really in the interests of Japan's big two distillers to tell you too much about it but Japanese whisky had a prehistory.

If you listen to the official versions from Nikka or Suntory, Japanese whisky started with a bang in 1919 or 1924. They have slightly different versions of the creation myth, emphasising the role of either Masataka Taketsuru or Shinjiro Torii in bringing the gospel of authentic whisky from Scotland, but basically they agree: quite suddenly, out of the blue, Japan started making proper Scotch style whisky.

Whisky arrives in Japan? Perry`s list of gifts for the Emperor

It is not quite as simple as that. Japan had a long dalliance with whisky before Taketsuru travelled to Scotland or Torii opened the Yamazaki Distillery. I have not yet found any reference to whisky in the Edo period, when Japan had a policy of excluding foreigners, but it may well have made an appearance. Even when the country was closed, the Japanese kept close tabs on things foreign through their experts in "Dutch studies" and through Dutch traders given limited rights to trade.

What is certain is that whisky, or rather "whiskey", arrived simultaneously with Japan's opening to the West. When Commodore Matthew Perry came in his black ships to negotiate a treaty with Japan in 1854, he brought with him a barrel and 110 additional gallons of American whiskey as a gift for the Emperor and his subjects. (By all accounts, the Emperor's barrel was purloined by the Shogun's retainers and never reached the Chrysanthemum Throne.)

In the murky half century between that first introduction and the 1920s, numerous Japanese (and, perhaps, foreigners) had a go at producing whisky, in the broadest sense of a bottle with the word "whisky" on it. Indeed, some quite large companies seem to have entered the market. Olive Checkland, in her book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend (review here), wrote:
"Foreign liquors are known in Japan as 'yoshu'.... In general, spirit manufacturers emerged in Japan from chemists working in the chemist's shop. In 1871, the English factory at Yamashita in Yokohama was attempting its own manufacture of 'yoshu'. Later, Karakichi Takiguchi experimented making spirits at his own chemist's shop at Takekawa-cho, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo. By 1912, when the Meiji Emperor died, there were several companies manufacturing spirits. These included Kanseido, foreign drinks manufacturer of Takiguchi, Tokyo; Denbei Kamiya, a foreign drinks maker who also ran Kamiya Bar in Asakusa, Tokyo; and Nishikawa who made foreign drinks in Osaka." (p.31)

Shinjiro Torii worked as a young man with the Konishi foreign drinks maker in Osaka, owned by his uncle Gisuke Konishi. From 1888, Konishi was making and selling "whisky" as well as beer and brandy [1]. The Konishi company of today, most famous for its production of fine glues, traces its history back to those early days of Western liquor production. There is reason to believe that some of the whisky produced by these pioneers might have more in common with a firm holding glue than a proper whisky. Checkland describes Masataka Taketsuru's first job, as a chemist for the big alcohol producer Settsu, as involving producing "artificial spirits ... by judicious mixing of a wide range of alcohol, sugar, perfumes, spices and flavourings." Ew!

There was some importing of whisky but there was also quite a lot of Japanese-produced synthetic "whisky" masquerading as the real thing. The first appearance of Shinjiro Torii's legendary Torys brand came around 1919 on a bottle of "Finest Liqueur Old Scotch Whisky" ("liqueur" was sometimes used as a synonym for "blended" in those days). The label said it had been bottled by the "Torys Distillery". This was before any genuine Japanese distillery had been built.

This may, of course, may have been a genuine import suffering from a certain looseness of language but there were other clearer cases of fraud. On April 19th, 1923, the commercial supplement of the Japan Chronicle reported Scotch whisky being sold in Japan from "Leith, London".

That October, a month after the Great Kanto Earthquake had annihilated Tokyo and Yokohama with the loss of 140,000 lives, Shinjiro Torii bought land between Osaka and Kyoto to build the Yamazaki distillery. It is with Yamazaki and its first manager, Masataka Taketsuru, that the official history of Japanese whisky making begins.

Yoichi 12 - "fruit and peat"

I had this one at the Nikka Blender`s Bar. What with the slightly distracting service and the three ales in my system from a hearty meal at a nearby izakaya, I am sending out another cask strength warning not to take my impressions too seriously.

For what they are worth: there was dried fruit (plump squashy dried apricots?) and vanilla on the nose. In the mouth, quite sweet and mild on its first attack and then developing complexity and more of an attitude. The sweetness was still there (dates?) but metallic and peaty themes developed. They were by no means overwhelming, just enough to make it interesting. It seemed to have a longer finish than my memory of the Yoichi 10. I liked this one a little better than its younger brother but have given it the same score. Perhaps the scrumptious Yoichi 15 I tasted on the same night unfairly put it in the shade (we'll come to that one over the next couple of days).

45 per cent
Price (May 2007)
700 ml - 7,000 yen

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Japanese whisky's small band of Western admirers

Not a lot of people know this but the great existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was a fan of Japanese whisky.

David Drake's biography describes a visit to Japan in 1966 by the amphetamine and hard drink fueled French philosopher: "The trip was a great success, except for the food which Sartre found inedible, though he developed a great liking for Japanese whisky" (p. 119). Sartre`s partner, the feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was also impressed. She describes a drinking session in All Said and Done: "We sent for a bottle of Japanese whisky, which is very good" (p. 255).

The writer J.G Ballard
isn`t averse to a dram or two of the Japanese version (The Kindness of Women, p. 176) and Peggy Guggenheim, the art collector and patron, was known to decant cheap Japanese brands into Scotch bottles, though her motives for that seem to have been more parsimony than appreciation (Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, p. 271).

Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, seems also to have had an open mind. In You Only Live Twice, the Australian spy Dikko Henderson gets a steaming hangover on sake and Japanese whisky. Bond, more of a Martini man, comments, "I can't believe Japanese whisky makes a good foundation for anything." Dikko replies:
"You've got something there sport. I've got myself a proper futsukayoi - honourable hangover. Mouth like a vulture's crutch. Soon as we got home from that lousy cat house, I had to go for the big spit. But you're wrong about Suntory. It's a good enough brew. Stick to the cheapest, the White Label, at around fifteen bob a bottle. There are two smarter brands but the cheap one's the best. Went up to the distillery some whiles ago and met one of the family. Told me an interesting thing about whisky. He said you can only make good whisky where you can take good photographs. Ever heard that one? Said it was something to do with the effect of clear light on the alcohol" (p. 42).

Didn`t know they stored it in transparent casks! Must try that White Label some time.

The image of a drinking Sartre is from this website.

Shopping info: Nihombashi stores

The main Nihombashi shopping street connects in the south with the Ginza. Nihombashi was the original haunt of Tokyo's great department stores at the start of the 20th century and, although the main shopping focus has moved southwards, Mitsukoshi's flagship shop and the grand Takashimaya keep the tradition going. Like the Ginza department stores, they both carry limited stocks of Japanese single malt, although I must say Mitsukoshi's selection is particularly limited.

As in all Japanese department stores, the food and drink halls are in the basements.

A few miniatures and one bottle of Yamazaki

That's it! The grandest, oldest store of the biggest name in Japanese retailing has that for a selection of whisky, even worse than the not very impressive showing at its Ginza outlet although slightly better than the one bottle of Yoichi 10 on sale at Mitsukoshi's Ebisu branch. At the moment, Mitsukoshi is not the place to go for Japanese whisky, though of course that could quickly change. As far as foreign whiskies go, the bottle of the sought after Old Parr's Superior they had was hugely overpriced. You would have saved several thousand yen going to Tanakaya. Altogether, plenty of room for improvement.


Across the bridge to the South, Takashimaya put up a marginally better showing:

Couple of varieties of Yamazaki and a Yoichi

There were also miniatures of Yamazaki available. Overall, though, the big Nihombashi stores were disappointing, even compared to their distinctly underwhelming Ginza neighbours. You might be as well checking the bigger supermarkets near where you are staying than going out of your way to come here.

Location: Nihombashi, Chuo-ku, central Tokyo.
View location on map of single malt stores.

Shopping info: Tanakaya

The Tanakaya liquor shop in Mejiro, Tokyo is a treasure trove if you are living in Japan and fancy some foreign alcohol. Its single malt whisky selection, for instance, is formidable, much better than the vast majority of off licenses in the UK. Tanakaya has a great beer range, good wine, port, sherry, and loads of different spirits.

It is specialising in foreign liquor, so it is not the place to go if you are after sake or shochu, but it does seem to carry limited stocks of Japanese produced foreign style alcohols. This is fortunate for the Japanese whisky fiend because the limited stock of Japanese single malt whisky currently comprises of the Ichiro's Malt range. None of the standards are here - Yoichi, Miyagikyou, Hakushu, Yamazaki, Fuji-Gotemba or Karuizawa - but when I visited they still had a few bottles of the divine Ichiro`s Malt Single Cask 2000 on the shelves (not to be confused with the somewhat less than divine but similarly labeled Ichiro`s Choice Peated Golden Promise.) Ichiro`s Malt is not cheap. Expect to pay between 7,000 yen and 14,000 yen for a bottle, but this is the only place I have found so far where you can buy this stuff on the high street.

Digressing from whisky for a moment, if your budget gets the better of you, as it did in my case, you can always walk away with a few bottles of their Japanese indy brewery beer:

All made by Baird Beer of Shizuoka, Japan. Nice. Loved the labels too: "Shimaguni" ("Island countries"), with Japan replacing England beside the Emerald Isle, and "Teikoku IPA" ("Imperial IPA"), with the Japanese Empire replacing the British as the producer of that quintessentially imperial brew India Pale Ale.

Mejiro Station on the Yamanote line. There is only one exit. Turn left. Walk about 20 meters. It is in a basement on your left. Right beside McDonalds.
3-4-14 Mejiro, Toshima-ku
Tokyo, Japan.
Tel: (03) 3953-8888
View location on Nonjatta map of single malt stores.

Address in Japanese characters
東京都豊島区目白3-4-14 B1F

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Bar info: Nikka Blender's Bar

The Blender's Bar is owned by Nikka, one of the big two Japanese distillers, and is limited to their products. The Blender`s Bar is not cheap. We had two rounds of good whisky for two people, plus the obligatory tiny dish of food.
It cost over 7,000 yen, marginally more expensive than the Argyll, but it is definitely more geared up to the non-expert than some of its independent rivals. There is a "Key malt and Coffey Grain Tasting Set" for 3,000 yen, which allows you to taste a range of six of Nikka's whiskies, from a highly sherried Yoichi to one of Nikka's well regarded single grain whiskies.
The Blenders Bar is next to "Usquebaugh", which is more of an eating and drinking place and, although also owned by Nikka, is run as a totally separate establishment.

Open 5.00pm to 12.30am. Closed Sunday.


Omotesando station, exit B3. Turn left as you come out of the exit. Walk for a bit. Turn left at the corner where the Max Mara shop is. The Blender`s Bar is a few minutes down the road on your left. My Google map. Another map.


5-4-3 Minami Aoyama, Minato, Tokyo.

Address in Japanese characters

ニッカ ブレンダーズ バー
東京都港区南青山5丁目4-31 (Can`t see it?)
Tel : 03-3498-3338

Friday, May 18, 2007

The First Mizuwari Death Match

The Champion: Torys
The Challenger: Suntory Whisky (yellow label Kakubin)

Our first Mizuwari Death Match and a classic confrontation between two favourites of post war Japan. Uncle "It's Good, It's Cheap" Torys faces much hyped challenger Suntory (yellow label) Kakubin.

Kakubin comes into this match a clear favourite, having secured a surprise two stars in his weigh-in tasting. Uncle Torys picked up just the one star and the comment "foul but fine in a mizuwari". Well, today is all about mizuwaris. Will the big man shove the words down the throats of his naysayers? Or will the smooth challenger carry the day?

It is toe to toe stuff in the early stages. Kakubin: mild and well presented, just as he had been neat. Uncle Torys: this is a revelation! Maybe Torys is best regarded as a cordial after all? Whereas he had been crude neat, Torys has a long sweet, aniseedy taste in the iced water. He's definitely got the challenger on the back foot. Perhaps that sweet cloyingness is designed for dilution, whereas the Kakubin is just another watered down whisky? I pass the two glasses to my wife for a blind tasting: a short pause for reflection, then Torys is held up. Kakubin is down and out and Uncle Torys has not even had to use his sneaky low price move.

The result: Torys keeps the boater. Until next week.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Suntory Whisky (yellow label Kakubin) - "sweet and mild"

A very acceptable blended whisky. This is the standard Suntory blend. It comes in the company's distinctive turtle shell patterned glass bottle. The photo above is of the 180ml bottle. The bigger bottle, as the name implies in Japanese, is much squarer.

The whisky itself isn`t exactly bursting with character but is quite drinkable, in fact quite moreish. I tasted it neat. It was mild and sweet with a hint of that friendly oiliness you get in some Irish whiskeys.

It has none of the subtlety of the premium Suntory blend, Hibiki 17. It is also lacking the distinctive character that some of the single malts I have given the two star rating to were offering. They were wearing their hearts on their sleeves and sometimes lost out because of their honesty. This one is a calculating fellow, not giving too much out and not particularly memorable, but not making enemies either.
(By the way, Kakubin whisky appears to have some symbolic resonance for some Japanese people. As it says on the bottle, it traces its roots back 1937 and thus bridges the yawning divide between an imperial and militarist Japan and the post-defeat, post-imperial boom years. The second episode of the "Bartender" anime used Kakubin and this symbolism.)

Yellow label Kakubin qualifies for entry in the Mizuwari Death Match . In fact, its price defines the upper limit for Death Match entrants. So it goes through to the inaugural challenge fight against its much cheaper Suntory stablemate "Torys". May the best Mizuwari win!

40 per cent
Price (May 2007)
700 ml - 1,359 yen

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Torys - "foul but fine in a mizuwari"

The marketing may have been sublime but Torys is pretty foul if you drink it neat and without ice. It has a tinned mandarin and wood varnish taste; very cloying and sweet at the back of the mouth. (We are talking about the original Torys here, not the "Torys black", which I will taste separately.)

It occurs to me that it is slightly absurd trying to compare a very cheap blend like this to a 4,000 yen a bottle single malt. I have a feeling that a lot of the cheaper blends are going to end up with one star, making it difficult for readers to see any comparison.

And yet a lot of people may be interested in the cheaper end of the Japanese blended whisky market. Not everybody wants to be spending 4,000 plus on every bottle of whisky they buy. What to do? It seems a little prejudiced to exclude the cheap blends from the five point rating. One or two of them might stand up to the comparison with more expensive malts very well. However, in general, these cheaper blends are not intended to be drunk like you would a good malt. They are for putting in mizuwaris and such like. (There is a cordialish taste to the Torys and it tastes fine in a mizuwari. That is probably how it is best approached.) So, I will give them all a rating but cut out all the swilling and nosing for the cruder ones and, to give them a fair chance, enter them in the:

37 per cent
Price (May 2007)
700 ml - 907 yen (sold in the "Torys whisky square bottle")
180 ml - 272 yen

Mizuwari Death Match

The Mizuwari Death Match is a no-holds-barred, mano-a-mano challenge contest to decide the best mizuwari whisky in Japan. Basically, it is intended as a bit of light relief from my pretentious write-ups of expensive single malts. A lot of the cheap Japanese whiskies are intended to be drunk in mizuwaris, so why not find out which ones taste best?

To qualify to challenge the current champion, a whisky must cost no more than Suntory`s standard yellow label Kakubin blend, currently 1359 yen for 700 ml. As I say, it is no holds barred, so all manner of dastardly moves will decide the winner: taste, smell, look, price, "coolness factor" etc.. The winner becomes the new champion and must defend his crown, or rather his boater, against all-comers.

Match recordMay 17, 2007: Torys (inaugural champion) vs. Yellow Label Kakubin (challenger). Torys wins.
May 27, 2007: Torys (champion) vs. Red Suntory Whisky (challenger). Torys wins.
July 25, 2007: Torys (champion) vs. Nikka Black (challenger). Black takes it.
October 14, 2007: Nikka Black (champion) vs. Nikka Black mizuwari in a can (challenger). Nikka Black retains the boater.

Choice of the boater
I had thought of making the Mizuwari "crown" an old Japanese kabuto (warrior`s helmet) like this one. It seemed to have a suitably traditional Japanese, death matchy quality, but then my over literalness got the better of me and I got to thinking that, if "traditional" was what was needed, then surely it should have some relevance to Japanese whisky history. At the dawn of Japanese whisky drinking, at the start of the 20th century, nobody but museum exhibits was wearing kabuto in Japan. The men were all wearing boaters or fedora or bowler hats:

Crowds at Shinagawa station escaping the Kanto earthquake, 1923
(the year that Yamazaki, Japan's first whisky distillery, was started).

They fight for the Mizuwari Death Match Boater.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

How to make a mizuwari

Millions of Japanese drink their whisky in mizuwaris and this is a major influence on how Japanese whisky is made and sold. The hot and sweaty season is approaching now, so I thought I had better get my mizuwari skills honed.

Basically, it is ice, whisky and a lot of water mixed. Not very complicated really. But of course we have to make things complicated, don't we? I have trawled the Japanese internet for all the most intricate mizuwari recipes and combined the most unnecessary details into the Nonjatta Mizuwari.

Nonjatta Mizuwari (Patent Pending 2007).

1. Fill a long glass with the ice.

2. Pour in one measure of whisky. Stir 13 and a half times, slowly. If you can see a frost forming on the outside of the glass then you are there.

4.Top up the ice.

5. Pour in two measures of cold water. Some people like it with two and a half measures, others with just one. Stir it three and a half times, slowly.

6. Drink.

Just as a favour to me, please don't put expensive whisky in your mizuwari. I've seen people trying to sell single malt mizuwaris. Infact, I think Suntory may have actually bottled some very expensive malt mizuwari. It is just a waste. I am not saying mizuwaris are somehow a bad thing, just that it is bonkers to use expensive whisky as a cordial in an iced drink. There are perfectly good cheaper alternatives.

By the way, the half stirs come courtesy of the Suntory mizuwari (see references below). I was laughing at the idea of adding the half stir and my wife looked at me dead straight and said: "It is like the tea ceremony. There is beauty in the movement." So, the half stirs stay in, as does my scepticism. In case you want to search for mizuwari in Japanese: 水割り (mizuwari), ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)

Update: Contrary to some very expert but ill informed writing elsewhere, "mizuwari" is not pronounced anything like "Missouri" (whichever of the various pronounciations of that word you take) and is not always consumed after work. It is pronounced fairly straightforwardly: mi-zu-wa-ri, with equal emphasis on all the syllables and "a" for apple (... if you are British; if you are American, see comments thread).

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Uncle Torys ads

Next week I should have a few more write ups of single malts after a trip to Tokyo I am planning. In the mean time, I`m counting my pennies so I went out to buy that cheap bottle of blended White Label 007 was getting lectured about. I was waylaid by an even cheaper bottle, the least expensive of the Suntory bunch and also one of the classics: "Torys".

This is probably the oldest name in Japanese whisky. They were putting "Torys" on whisky bottles before they were even making the stuff. Below is an ad from 1919, before any Japanese whisky distillery was operating, for "Finest Liqueur Old Scotch Whisky". It is unclear whether the bottle in the picture was a Scotch whisky, or some kind of Scotch based liqueur, or the kind of ersatz Japanese imitation that was all too common in thos days (Japanese companies were not always too strict about the truth of their labels). Anyway, "Torys distillery" is scrawled across the bottle in Roman letters.

The brand we know now, however, is really a post World War Two phenomenon. Japan was desperately poor in the aftermath of defeat. People were dying of starvation. Poncey single malts were not really the order of the day. Torys was launched in 1949 with the short and too the point slogan: "It's good, it's cheap."

Whatever type of product they are flogging, Suntory are always adroit and sometimes innovative when it comes to advertising. In 1958, the artist Ryohei Yanagihara [1,2], who had joined the company four years before, came up with Uncle Torys, a hard drinking, amiable type with a tendency (like many Japanese people) to go bright red when he drinks. Yanagihara left to become an independent artist the next year but Uncle Torys stayed and became a very widely recognised icon in postwar Japan

These early Uncle Torys ads don't really fit in with the "Drink Responsibly" disclaimers of the 21st century, but they are a hoot:

Uncle Torys gets wasted:

Uncle Torys in the Wild West:

The clapping at the end of the video is a traditional Japanese thing when deals are done. The last slogan juxtaposes "Torys, a man`s drink" with Torys as a bringer of peace.

Uncle Torys in the Saloon:

Uncle Torys after work (in colour):

A more modern and boring take:

Suntory, characteristically quick to pick up on the current retro fad in Japan, have returned to the old Uncle Torys character. Can't seem to upload the current video, but you can download it here. Uncle Torys returns to the bar after years away. The owner is not too happy with his disloyalty. Harmony is restored over a class of Torys. Suntory are offering computer wallpaper for a new generation of devotees.

Torys whisky is still very cheap. I got my small 180 ml bottle for 272 yen, which is about £1.14 or $2.20. What's it like? I'm knackered tonight and I'm not enjoying the whisky, possibly for other reasons than the taste itself, so I will give it another chance in the next couple of days and then spout. In the meantime, just kick back, pour yourself a cheap whisky, and savour the excellence of Suntory marketing.

After a month of heavy blogging, another breather...

Another Japanese view of an Englishman drinking too much, accompanied by a smoking Dutchman and an American woman in a funny hat.

Artist: Hiroshige (not the famous one), 1861

The print is reproduced with the permission of the Collection Netherlands Economic History Archive, Amsterdam.

Saturday, May 5, 2007


The former owners of the Shirakawa Distillery in Fukushima have left their Japanese single malt making days far behind.

Takara Shuzou, an old sake and shochu making business tracing its roots back to the mid 19th century, is now more famous for cutting up and manipulating DNA than whisky distilling. Takara workers might have been forgiven for thinking the bosses had been drinking from the barrels when they announced a biotech research centre in 1967, but the investment paid off in the late 70s when they produced enzymes that identified and separated DNA sequences. Takara are now big players in that world.

The Takara holding company still has an alcohol arm. In the 50s and 60s, its "King" blended whisky and "Takara" beer brands were quite prominent. The beer is long gone and, though you can still buy the blended whisky, Takara now makes most of its sales through traditional Japanese alcohols, chu-hai cocktail drinks and mirin cooking sake. Its quality whisky making is now entirely offshore - it owns the Tomatin distillery in Scotland - and a brief flirtation with the Japanese single malt scene seems to have finished quite a long time before the Shirakawa distillery was officially closed in 2003. Shirakawa, which had been bought by Takara from another brewer immediately after the Second World War, was being used solely as a bottling plant in its later years.

According to Takeshi Mogi`s Japanese whisky site, stocks of Shirakawa single malts are quite limited. I have found this store on the internet, selling Shirakawa single malt by the 100ml in plastic bottles, and one Nonjatta reader bought Shirakawa for less than 500 yen per 100ml in 2004. Wish I could get it for that price.

"Shirakawa" mark in Japanese characters

I have never seen the Shirakawa brand on a whisky bottle. This is what it looked like scrawled on the side of my placky bottle of Shirakawa:

And in computer text, in case you want to search for these whiskies on the Japanese internet: 白河 (Shirakawa), ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)

Single malts from Shirakawa

See the side bar.

LocationView location on map of Japan's single malt distilleries. (If you download Google Earth and click on the "KML" button above this map you can see the topography in 3D!)
The distillery is no longer operating. Takara has a new plant in this area but it has nothing to do with whisky distilling.

No longer exists.
I believe it was at: 961-0074, Kakunai 151, Shirakawashi , Fukushima
Former address in Japanese: 白河市郭内151〒961-0074
The Takara (alcohol) website in Japanese
The Takara (alcohol) website in EnglishOnline Vom Fass shop selling Shirakawa by the 100ml in plastic bottles

I am taking a bit of a punt with the illustration for this post. I believe it is an old print of the Shirakawa distillery but I am not sure at all. I found it on the Takara website.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Shirakawa 30 - "matches"

I thought I would never taste anything from Shirakawa. The distillery closed around five years ago and I understood it was really hard to get hold of any of its single malts. Then, juking around on the internet, I found this site quietly selling it by the 100ml. I chuckled at the way this legendary old whisky arrived: in a placky bottle!

Beautiful! There was something very Rikyū about the whole thing. The masking tape used to secure the top was the piece de resistance.

We've had Nikka vs. Suntory. Now, among the niche marketers, we can have Ichiro's Malt vs. Vom Fass. While Ichiro is marked by its clever packaging and great market placement, the Vom Fass Shirakawa comes in a placky bottle with only "Shirakawa, Japanese Single Malt Whisky", "300ml" and "55 per cent alcohol" to tell you what it is. The website adds that this whisky is over 30 years old. How much older we are not told.

Ichiro (left) and Vom Fass (right)

Vom Fass is originally a German company which started out selling oil. The name literally means "from the barrel" and the company makes a thing of not bottling its products in fancy packaging. If you want packaging they will sell it to you separately, but their philosophy is to sell the product in whatever quantity the consumer wants and to separate the product price from the packaging price. It goes against the bottling culture of single malt whisky but it is refreshing. There are Vom Fass shops in lots of different counties doing the same sort of thing, but Vom Fass Japan`s Shirakawa cask is a bit of a coup. I put 180ml straight into an empty small glass whisky bottle I had to hand. Not sure whether the plastic bottle was going to harm it if kept in there for a long time but didn't want to take the risk at 1050 yen per 100ml.

What of the whisky? Without water, I liked the nose: butterscotch notes, orange liqueur, a developing smell of mown grass. For my mouth, it was too strong neat: plastic, burned rubber, eating a matchbox, soapy tongue. The finish was surprisingly short for all the early aggression. With a few drops of water it backed off a bit. The smell was much more in the grassy field in summer, chronic hayfever attack territory, and then a return of the matchy notes: a field after a firework display. It was much more drinkable with the water: sweet, slightly cabbagy, the taste of a glass of water after you have brushed your teeth.

If only this had been a classic! I could have reveled in my plastic bottled 30-year-old malt for years to come. My talk of cabbages etc. may give the impression to some people that this isn't very nice. Not the case. It is perfectly palatable and interesting. But not a classic, in my opinion.

"At least 30 years old", according to the website.
Straight from the cask.

55 per cent
Price (April 2007)
100 ml - 1,050 yen
Available from this site.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Rikyū and the Yamazaki distillery

A couple of my recent posts have been a little bit beastly to Suntory [1,2], so I will write a nice one. One gets bored with the constant barrage of claims from distillers expounding the unique qualities of their waters, but in the case of Suntory's Yamazaki distillery there is a historical connection that is is worth talking about.

The Japanese know their water, they have been studying it for centuries, and nowhere is this more true than at Minasen, the area where Yamazaki gets its water. Minasen (literally "source of water") is an old redoubt of the Japanese tea ceremony or Cha no Yu (literally "water for tea"), a traditional art in which water is every bit as important as in distilling. The great tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) chose to have his tea house at Minasen.

It is a bit of a flight of fancy but I have been wondering whether Rikyū might have anything to say to whisky drinkers.

On connoisseurship
Rikyū is famed in tea circles for cultivating a quiet rustic simplicity. Once, somebody asked him what were the mysteries of tea. He replied:
Tea is nought but this.
First you make the water boil,
Then infuse the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know

On equipment
I was reading this excellent article on whisky glassware this morning. Rikyū:
If you have one pot
And can make your tea in it
That will do quite well.
How much does he lack himself
Who must have a lot of things.

If you have no pot
Take a saucepan and in that
Boil your hot water.
Even so your tea may be
Quite the best in all Japan.

Though I tell you this
Do not go and hide away
Things you now possess.
To pretend you have them not
Is affected elegance.

This does not mean he disparaged the understanding of equipment. Quite the opposite. He lived in an era when certain antique tea pots could fetch the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds. At one gathering of nobles admiring some such prized teaware, he interrupted:
Really sirs, this is most unbecoming talk. The connoisseurship of tea vessels consists in judging whether they are interesting and suitable for their purpose or not, and whether they combine well or badly with each other and has nothing to do with their age at all.

On morality and fakes

I was reading log entry 302 at Maltmadness.org about fake whiskies being sold for lots of money at auction houses which seem to be a little dilatory in stopping the fraud . Rikyū once bought a writing by the famous priest Mitsuan for a small fortune. He had a tea ceremony in its honour, to which he invited Kitamuki Dochin and another priest. Neither of them seemed to admire it, so Rikyū asked why. "Because it isn't genuine," came the reply. Whereupon Rikyū immediately burned the vastly expensive article, lest anyone else be fooled.

On blogs about whisky by whisky ignoramuses (ie. Nonjatta)

From Rikyū's 100 rules: "He is a fool who gives his opinion without suitable experience." But: "He who is ashamed to show ignorance will never be any good."

On life
From Rikyū's 100 rules: "If you wish to follow the way of the Buddha, it is only this: Lead a life of leisure and don't take things seriously. That's the main thing."

On how to entertain guests by Hechikan, another great tea master
Rikyū was invited by Hechikan to visit him at the height of a desperately humid Japanese summer. He arrived to find no one to greet him and saw only a very small aperture by which to get into the tea room. Thinking this was typical of the rather extreme Hechikan, he struggled through the hole, only to find it was a trap: he was pitched headlong into a muddy pit. At this point, Hechikan appeared, expressing great regret at the great man's soiled condition. "We must get you a bath," he said. They went to the bath house and sat steeping in steaming hot water. Hechikan provided Rikyu with fresh clothes and they proceeded to the tea house where they were able to enjoy a wonderfully relaxed drink.

For more on Rikyu, including his tragic death, see Wikipedia. The image of Rikyu is taken from Wikipedia and is open source.
Most of my Rikyu quotes come from "Cha-no-Yu" by A.L. Sadler.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Suntory single malts and the food thing

I have written before about the difference between the marketing strategies of the Nikka and Suntory companies: Nikka with its emphasis on Scotch "authentic-ness" and Suntory with its stress on drinkability with Japanese food. Well, an old copy of one my wife's women's magazines gives a perfect illustration of the Suntory approach. The article was published in the 2005 Christmas issue of "Orange Page", kind of a Japanese version of Good Housekeeping.

Like in the West, the Christmas-New Year period in Japan is a time when families get together. Lots of fun is had in some families but for others this can mean sitting for days on end, in a catatonically bored state, getting smashed with people you don't particularly like. I suppose Suntory's hope was that the article would inspire a few housewives to try something new on the fifth or sixth day of their annual nightmare. The article is clearly a product of the Suntory machine because all of the whiskies featured are either produced or imported by them. No Nikkas, other Japanese makes or independent imports are mentioned. That is what it makes it so interesting. The subservience of the journos who produced it gives us a very pure exposition of the Suntory marketing push and I don't think there is a distiller on the planet so intent on marketing whisky as an accompaniment to food as Suntory in Japan.

The article adopts the conceit of a conversation between a young man and wife. He comes home and suggests they drink single malt that evening. She responds with surprise, saying whisky is not for eating with and, anyway, it has such a fuddy duddy image. He says he has been to a bar and really enjoyed drinking it with food.
The next 16 pages give whisky by whisky food suggestions. A brief summary:

Bowmore 12 has a "touch of the ocean."
Great with: oysters cooked in their shells covered with cheese; carpaccio of sea bream; grilled veg and chicken with a tofu sauce. Curried and deep fried lotus root and swordfish.
Hakushu 12 is smokey with a "flavour of the forest" (I suppose because it is made in a forest.) It has flavours of grilled leaves and cream.
Great with: kushiage; chicken wings in a spicy korean stew; sea bass al cartocio in whisky and white wine.
Laphroaig 10's smokey, peaty character makes it good with smokey things.
Great with: smoked salmon with mashed potatoes; smoked chicken with sauteed mushrooms; smoked scallops and octopus with pickles.
Glenfiddich 12 has a white wine smell. The article says it is suited to spicy food and then suggests a lot of pretty unspicy food.
Great with: roast pork; roast beef with daikon, soy sauce and spring onions; oysters with rice; cabbage and anchovy pasta.
Macallan 12's sherried character makes it suited to sweet stuff.
Great with: ice cream, annin dofu, chocolate mouse.
Yamazaki 12 is not really characterised in the article, beyond saying it is the oldest Japanese whisky.
Great with: duck nabe.

Whatever you think of the particular pairings, this food marketing is playing a large part in defining Suntory whiskies and the company's attempts to achieve drinkability in a Japanese food environment are one of the influences that it could be argued do make its whiskies "uniquely Japanese".

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

End of an era

I feel like a cub watching the passing of the head of the pride. Taylor Smisson has announced that he will no longer be producing the Malt Drinker's Diary, which he has been publishing out of Tokyo for five years. This is sad news indeed.
"Although my enthusiasm regarding single malts has not waned and my health is still good, I find I no longer have the time required to search for, drink, photograph and write about good malt whiskies."

The Malt Drinker's Diary was a tour de force. As Smisson put it: "An ongoing bottle-by-bottle journey through the city that is the Scotch single malt drinker's heaven on earth - Tokyo." The whisky web will be a poorer place without the diary, which was published in both English and Japanese, and it is to be hoped that its 500 plus editions will be preserved as a resource. Smisson managed to taste more than 4,000 bottles of single malt during his odyssey and, though his public whisky adventure may be ending, his personal journey is by no means over. The final post finishes: "See you on the Malt Trail!"

Japanese Whisky History (1980s) - Keizo Saji and the Kumaso scandal

Jurassic Period // Unlocking Scotland I // Unlocking Scotland II //Whisky and war// Whisky and war II // Pioneer of Single Malts // Kumaso scandal

There are still people in the northern part of Japan who will not let a drop of Suntory cross their lips. In fact, there is at least one baseball stadium in the North where no Suntory products are sold at all. Why? The biggest gaffe in the history of Japanese distilling, made by our friend Keizo Saji, the legendary head of Suntory.

In the late 1980s, there was a lot of debate in Japan about moving the capital from Tokyo. Tokyo was crowded, labyrinthine, and Narita airport was a nightmare to get to, people said. There were various ideas for alternative locations but the two main groups of campaigners came from the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto) area, site of the old capital and a huge conurbation itself, and from Tohoku, the Northern part of the main island.

The Kansai campaign was nothing new. Kansai people have never quite got over the loss of capital status to the upstart Tokyo. When the Emperor left at the start of the Meiji era, he kind of sidled out without really admitting he was going and they have been trying to get him back ever since. In 1923, immediately after a catastrophic earthquake wiped out Tokyo and Yokohama, Kansai people showed indecent haste in suggesting days after the disaster that it might be best if the capital came back to them. Only an Imperial edict shut them up.

The Tohoku campaign, however, was a bit of a novelty, like Cornwall suggesting it might be a good site for a relocated capital of the United Kingdom. The proponents were deadly serious and they could claim good communications and the possibility of a completely fresh start, unlike the Kansai brigade. Anyway, when Saji, a native of Kansai at the head of one of Kansai's greatest companies, was asked on television what he thought of the Tohoku idea, he responded: "Tohoku! That's where the Kumaso come from! They have a low level of culture." The Kumaso were a hairy indigenous tribe who held out against the Japanese crown in the 8th century. It didn't help the reception of Saji's comments that he had got his facts wrong. The Kumaso were from the southern island of Kyushu. There had been a similarly hairy tribe of Emishi who valiantly resisted in Tohoku. It was a bit like someone objecting to the idea of the Cornish capital on the basis that there had been an awful lot of smelly Picts there.

To cut a long story short, Tohoku went completely bonkers. Suntory adverts were banned from the local television stations and replaced with public service announcements. The entire drinking district of Sendai city completely emptied itself of Suntory products. The vice president of Suntory had to do a tour of the North, visiting governors to solicit their forgiveness. Many of them blanked him. Eventually, Saji himself had to go to each governor for a series of teary apologies. Despite all this abasement, some Tohoku people have never forgiven the arrogant Kansai Sassenachs. They prefer Nikka, Suntory's main rival, with its distilleries in the big Tohoku city of Sendai and on the northern island at Yoichi. This is particularly unfortunate for Suntory because northerners consume far more whisky per head than anywhere else in the country.

(The photo of the bearded man comes from the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan. It is actually from an old guide to Hokkaido and therefore depicts an Ainu, who are believed to have been related to the Emishi peoples on the main island. Of course, the Kumaso, Emishi and Ainu were not united in their "hairiness", it just seems that way in the derogatory depictions of the Yamato Japanese.)