Thursday, September 25, 2008

Not quite what it seems to be

These keep popping out of the woodwork: unheard of single malts from obscure corners of Japan's alcohol business not normally associated with whisky making. This "Sapporo Single Cask Malt Whisky" does not come from Yoichi, the only established whisky distillery on the island of Hokkaido, but from a quite separate alcohol making business about 25 miles away in Sapporo city. The company is called Sapporo Shusei and they are much better known for making neutral spirits. To make things simple, they call their distillery Sapporo.

But be careful! The bottle displayed above says nothing about the actual origins of the whisky. My best understanding, based on the expertise of Atsushi Horigami at the Zoetrope bar, is that this whisky was actually distilled in Scotland rather than Japan. This is not to say that the company are dishonest. I believe they released information about the country of origin of the whisky (though not the particular distillery) when the bottling hit the market. The label, however, is not at all informative on this point.

I believe that this whisky was distilled somewhere in Scotland in 1990, that it was aged in a Sherry cask and that a substantial period of that aging was done in Sapporo. Only 400 or so bottles were sold by Sapporo Shusei when it was released at the end of 2006/beginning 2007. It is not in Sapporo's current range of whiskies, which are all blended.

This is a bit of a lesson in the pitfalls of the more obscure corners of the Japanese whisky industry. The main Japanese producers are completely up to speed with contemporary labeling practice but we must see this single cask bottling as being part of the old yoshu (Western spirits) tradition, which has seen numerous smaller companies dabbling in whisky selling for nearly a century without ever making it more than a sideline. As you can see, after all these years, these companies are not always sufficiently informative with their labeling.

Somewhat improbably, this obscure single cask bottling came to Nonjatta's notice via Australia. The bottle pictured above is owned by Graham Wright, who runs a whisky mail order business and web operation, the Odd Whisky Coy, and has been kind enough to give permission for Nonjatta to publish these photos. The original version of this post fell for the idea that this was a Japanese whisky, but I am strangely delighted to find it came in disguise. There is something about the world of whisky fakery and mummery that fascinates me. Sometimes this sort of thing is downright fraudulent, but when it is in this more artful form it can be at least as interesting as the established whisky industry. After all, the whole of the Japanese whisky industry has its roots in the play acting inherent in the old yoshu industry. This is why I find the vagiaries of the current Chinese, Taiwanese etc. industries intriguing. I have no doubt that fully fledged, legitimate whisky production will eventually flower in those places too.

So, let's take a look at this survival of the old ways. Sapporo Shusei are best known for their neutral spirits, specifically a brand called Sapporo Soft. It is a neutral spirit and has an alcohol content of 20 per cent (ABV). You can buy 20 litres of the stuff for 12,000 yen, the sort of money you might shell out for an exported 720ml bottle of Japanese single malt. They have had some interesting advertising campaigns over the years. This one, from 1973, made me laugh:

The woman in the photo is saying: "When my buddy comes around, 3 or 4 bottles should do it. We are young, so it should be OK!.... Gotta make him pass out!"

Not sure what the story is there! If it is a crude romantic tactic, I can't help feeling that the man in question might suffer from troubles anticipated in the brand name. Anyway, in these days of "drink responsibly" advertising, it is a breath of fresh air. Sapporo Shusei was founded in 1933, at about the same time that Masataka Taketsuru was setting up down the road at Yoichi. The official company history says that there was a shortage of supply in the local alcohol market. A man called Sakutarou Kaneko hit upon the idea of using surplus local potatoes to make shochu.

The iconic "Sapporo Soft" line dates from much later: 1960. The brand can be seen as a bastard child of the Japanese whisky industry. At the time, whisky was becoming the drink of choice for the younger generation. Whisky mizuwaris were the rage. They stood for a new, international Japan. Shochu, by contrast, had dark associations with poverty and the war years. The company decided to hitch its cart to the coming thing. They made a relatively low alcohol shochu and began to sell it in a bottle that consciously aped the shape and Western lettering that was associated with whisky. It was a hit and many a man has passed out drinking "Soft" since then.

The launching of the "Soft" brand in 1960 coincided with the concentration of Sapporo's Shusei's operations at their current Sapporo site (below), which of course, as we now know, is not where the whisky was distilled but where it resided while it was being aged.

Other Sapporo Shusei whiskies

The following whiskies are also sold by Sapporo Shusei. My current understanding, based on a snatched conversation during an impromptu visit to the distillery last year, is that no whisky is currently being distilled by them. I also believe that the whisky in the drinks below is the same as that mentioned above, ie. made in Scotland not Japan (incidentally, this site agrees on the Scottish origin of the most expensive whisky in this range). From left to right, "Sapporo Whisky SS" (43 percent, 720 ml); Sapporo Whisky (40 per cent alcohol, 720 ml); Sapporo Whisky (37 per cent alcohol, 640 ml); Sapporo Whisky (37 per cent alcohol, 1800 ml). They are all blends.

Sapporo Distillery
10 Jou 1-1-1, Hassamu, Nishi-ku, Sapporo Shi, Hokkaido, Japan 063-0830.
Telephone: 011-661-1211
Fax: 011-663-6383
Address in Japanese characters
〒063-0830 札幌市西区発寒10条1丁目1番1号

Location on Nonjatta's map of "Other Japanese Distilleries":

View Other Japanese distilleries in a larger map

The photograph and news of the single cask bottling came from Graham Wright of Odd Whisky Coy. All the other photographs come from the Sapporo Shusei website. The information about the origins of this whisky comes from Atsushi Horigami's blog and is backed up on Katotomo's blog.


James said...

Hi, really enjoying your informative site. I found this article simply because I was researching a bottle of Sapporo whisky I just picked up. I bought the bottle from an exclusive Japanese whisky store, and I was told the whole casket was purchased by the store (some 200+ bottles) as an exclusive from Japan. The labeling on mine is a bit different with some more information, but no information on origin - the store owner told me it is from the distillery in Japan. I find this quite interesting, and I'm now wondering if I should exchange it for something else given that it wasn't a cheap bottle. But I'm also quite curious as to the whisky itself -

Nonjatta said...

I think if I had that bottle I would also be in two minds.

Anonymous said...

I think James and I visited the same shop in Hong Kong. The owner/sales person was also pushing this particular whisky when I was there in December but I just couldn't pay so much for a bottle without doing some research on it before hand. Ended up buying a bottle of Yamazake 18 years instead.