Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Industrial processes are being abandoned for traditional craftsmanship"

To mark the publication of his pioneering new book on Japanese whisky, Nonjatta asked Ulf Buxrud to give us a quick overview of his view of the Japanese industry, the Scottish distilleries and the direction of global whisky. It is a stimulating and, in places, controversial read.

By Ulf Buxrud

Modern whisky production is a landscape that has changed significantly over the last decade. In Scotland, the move is to large units with a standardized approach throughout, from the means of production to the raw materials and maturation. Japan is going the other way by calibrating its once super large processing plants to favour small batches and individuality, thereby enabling the creation of multitudes of stern scented and flavour driven whiskies.

A changing economic climate during the early 90s paired with a tax reform knocked local as well as imported whisky from its 'luxury' pedestal. The local industry has lost some of its mass market share to cheap imported whiskies and has had to re-invent itself. They did that by taking a firm and sometimes unorthodox grip on the hardware used in the metamorphosis of converting cereals to the nectar.

Further, the role of microbiologist was put in the foreground and new strain of yeast and better understanding of the fermentation process because key elements in this, the 'third' coming of the Japanese whisky science and culture. The first was pre-WWII and the second post-WWII.

In Japan, we are seeing a return to the fundamentals of whisky making. Sadly, we have now arrived at a time in which the Scotch original is gradually losing its preeminence. Today, Japanese whisky is defeating its Scotch peer in head to head competitions remarkably frequently. Loads of comparative tastings have documented this. My guess is that 8 to 10 years down the road, the Japanese whiskies may be regarded as superior in terms of quality.

My rather long acquaintance with Japanese whisky is rooted in the distant 80s. From a simple curiosity for an exotic version of my beloved Scotch, an infatuation slowly grew. For years I followed the changes in the industry's paradigm. From monolithic, volume-based concoction plants to refined production sites where industrial processes are being abandoned in favour of traditional craftsmanship.

I had long nursed an urge to investigate and document this rapidly changing industry. So, in the Spring of 2007, when the opportunity knocked, in the shape of the knowledgeable and illustrious Hideo Yamaoka, to conduct a safari deep into the Japanese whisky jungle, I did not hesitate. Together, we criss-crossed Japan from Sapporo in the north to Kyoto in the south, and from Tokyo in the east to the Japanese Alps in the west, sampling tons of local whiskies (125+). Time also permitted us to make our own blends at Miyagikyo Distillery and to listen to colour-rich tales and insightful lectures. Several of our findings along the journey are the foundation for my guide to "Japanese Whisky - Facts, Figures and Taste."


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