Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Book Review: Japanese Whisky - Facts, Figures and Taste

A lovely shiny black volume of Ulf Buxrud`s "Japanese Whisky - Facts, Figures and Taste" arrived on my doorstep yesterday. I sat down with a glass of Karuizawa and read it in a single sitting.

The book is in a lavish hardback format on lovely thick glossy paper. Much of its photography is of the highest quality. The imagery for the main distilleries is particularly good and the spreads for the Fuji-Gotemba, Karuizawa and Yoichi distilleries are the best you are going to get anywhere. Some of the smaller, now defunct distilleries inevitably suffer from a scarcity of imagery and there are a couple of sections (Shirakawa and Hanyu) where the available photographs have been stretched to resolutions beyond their capabilities, resulting in a slightly off-putting pixelation. However, the overall design of the book is both beautiful and a joy to read.

The overall impression is of an extensively researched work which significantly expands the available information in English on its subject. Ulf Buxrud is formidably well informed about whisky and the real engine rooms of "Japanese Whisky - Facts, Figures and Taste" for me were the technical chapters "On Fermentation Practice", "On Distillation Practice", "On Filtration Practice" and "On Wood Policy". Specifically, I was fascinated by Ulf`s exploration of the Japanese distillers` highly controlled use yeasts and his comparisons with Scottish practice.

Predictably for such an experienced whisky aficionado, the whisky tasting is presented in a highly systematic and clearly explained way and the numerous whisky reviews are always interesting and sometimes mouth watering.

The entries on each distillery provide historical context as well as extensive technical information about the current facilities. I particularly enjoyed the "Other Things to do in the area" sections which give hints to prospective travellers on attractions beyond the whisky world. Many of these distilleries are set in really beautiful and interesting parts of Japan. It would be a pity to be wearing whisky blinkers when you visit them. The suggested itinerary for a whisky tour of Japan is also a very pleasant addition to the book. It is detailed and well researched.

This would not be Nonjatta if I didn't indulge in some nerdy quibbles over small factual issues. Overall, it is fair to say that Ulf's work would have benefited from a good proof read but there are some more substantive weaknesses. I have thought carefully about whether to include these issues in this review. It seems a little churlish to load down coverage on a book that I liked in this way. On the other hand there are passages which may mislead people trying to use the book as a guide, so I have come to a compromise by posting all my nit picking on a separate page.

There is one additional negative that I feel I need to mention in the main review and which puts me in a somewhat difficult position. There is wording in this book that is uncomfortably close to that on Nonjatta. I thought about letting this pass without comment but doing so would lay me open, perhaps more than the author of the book, to accusations of using someone else`s work. The normal assumption is that the content of a website is likely to have been lifted from a more "authoritative" looking printed book, rather than the other way around. I am a professional writer and that sort of impression would be highly damaging to me. So, I am going to briefly state the problem and move on.

Ulf has credited Nonjatta as a source of images in his book but in a number of places, especially in the history sections, he has, perfectly legitimately, leaned fairly heavily on Nonjatta for some of his content. I appreciate that it is difficult in a non-academic work to properly reference. (I don`t apply academic reference formats on Nonjatta either but I always, perhaps rather tediously, try to make my sources clear at the end of every post). However, I would ask readers to peruse the following passages:
Nonjatta (Published July 1, 2007), link here: "On Thursday April 17, 1919, Masataka Taketsuru walked into the ramshackle wooden buildings of Glasgow's Buchanan Street Station and boarded the Caledonian Railway train going north. ... He changed at Perth onto the North Highland railway and finally made it to Elgin at the heart of the famous Speyside whisky region. He put up at the Station Hotel."

Japanese Whisky - Facts, Figures and Taste (Published September 2008), page 19: "On Thursday April 17, 1919, Masataka Taketsuru walked into Glasgow's Buchanan Street Station and boarded the Caledonian Railway train going north. He changed at Perth onto the North Highland railway and finally made it to Elgin, at the heart of the famous Speyside whisky region. He put up at the Station Hotel."
The "..." in the Nonjatta passage indicates that there were some extra sentences in the middle of my original but I think you will agree there is an unreferenced echo bouncing around there somewhere. My own source for much of the information in those two sentences was Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend by Olive Checkland (1998), which Nonjatta's format allowed me to reference at the bottom of my original post. Checkland in turn references Taketsuru's "Elgin Diary" in the Glasgow University Archives. Unfortunately, Ulf`s only referencing in his whole book is a seven entry bibliography on page 148, which lists Checkland and a three word mention of the "Nonjatta web site". However, the wording is so hauntingly similar to Nonjatta's here (and my phrasing and organisation of the information quite dissimilar to Checkland's) that I worry a little if Ulf has leaned similarly heavily on other sources in other parts of the book. There are other passages where (how shall I put it?) Nonjatta readers might feel a certain sense of "unreferenced déjà vu" and I comment in the factual correction post on similarities with some Wikipedia text at another point in the book. However, I have already spent too much space on this rather egotistical issue. Most readers probably do not give a monkeys about where the information/phrasing comes from.

Returning to the positives, Ulf's book, particularly the technical sections, taught me a great deal that I did not know about whisky in general and about Japanese whisky in particular. I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Japanese Whisky - Facts, Figures and Taste" and I think we all need to thank Ulf for the hard work that went into this significant addition to English information about Japanese whisky.

The hardback can be obtained via various sources listed on Ulf`s website for 60 Dollars/30 Pounds/40 Euros.

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