Monday, January 28, 2008

Whisky Magazine Live! in Tokyo

Tickets for Whisky Magazine Live! at the Tokyo Big Sight on February 10 are available at this website. Entrance costs 5,000 yen (6,000 yen on the day) plus 3,000 yen for each masterclass. Alternatively, you can pay 12,000 yen for entrance and three masterclasses.

It is the biggest single event in the whisky calendar in Japan with loads of tasting opportunities and an chance to hear some of the leading names in whisky from across the world. For those particularly interested in Japanese whisky, there are masterclasses from the Miyagikyou and Hakushu distilleries this year. Both classes are in Japanese.

But what caught my eye was this description, way down in the programme of entertainments:
"A first for Live! is the performance of a Noh play about Japanese whisky by the Kami-Asobi troupe."
In the Japanese programme, it says a Noh dance, so a sketch or a section of a play rather than a full blown drama, but in any case, if it is anything like what I am modelling in my head, it sounds like a unique happening.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

First book on Japanese whisky

Ulf Buxrud, author of "Rare Malts", is on the brink of publishing the first proper book on Japanese whisky in English. Ulf told me about this some time ago but swore me to secrecy as he worked through the drafts. (I am writing my own book, nothing to do with Japanese whisky, so I know how tough the process of making a book a reality is).

The 200 page hardback, full of sumptuous colour photography, maps, distillery profiles, descriptions of Japan's amazing bar culture and "facts and figures of a formative and exciting segment of the Japanese whisky industry" etc. etc. is getting ready to hit the bookshops in late Spring. Ulf writes:
"This book is an endeavour to document the facts and figures of a formative and exciting segment of the Japanese whisky industry.

It is also an attempt to mirror the arduous work and joy surrounding the rise of a trade that became an industry on its own merits.

The 'Japanese Whisky' portrays all distilleries involved in the foundation of a unique chapter in the global history of whisky making. Some of these entities are gone, others are still operating at full steam. Each of the distillery portraits contains histories and comprehensive technical data, some never published before.

A special segment maps a vast number of whisky versions produced over the years. Tasting notes, photo documentation and comments are included for each of them.

Plenty of side information such as how to travel and visit distilleries, the Japanese whisky bar culture, how to and where to find Japanese whiskies and much more is highlighted in the book."
I know I can`t wait to get my copy. Sign up at this page for email notification of when the book is released. It will cost about 40 Euros, which is under £30 or $60. By the way, the characters on the cover say "Inochi no mizu" , the "water of life" (from top right reading down to bottom left). My wife's first reaction when she saw me typing away at this was "Scary!" - I think the red made her think of blood - so she was mightily relieved when I told her it was just good old "uisge-beatha".

This is an exciting time for Japanese whisky fans. The whisky world started to wake up to Japanese whisky several years ago, with various pioneering experts acknowledging that it could rival anything produced in Scotland, Ireland or the US, but Ulf's book marks a very important stage in the evangelism. I hope Nonjatta is playing a part in this process too. We have a readership of about 1,500 individual visitors a month and that figure has been steadily increasing every month since the site started. I think the message is starting to get through. I was just working with a writer on the influential web magazine Chow for an article on their pages and I am myself putting together a chapter for a unique whisky book (nothing like a guide, something totally different, so no competition with Ulf!!). That will probably be in the bookshops by the end of 2008. As I say, exciting times.

Plummy accent

We often hear about old barrels of sherry etc. etc. being used to influence the taste of our whiskies, but what happens to old whisky barrels when they retire? The clever fellows at Yamazaki distillery are using some of their cast-off casks to mature umeshu (Japanese traditional plum liqueur). I bought a bottle and it was delicious, as umeshu always is, but I will have to try another glass to see if I can detect what the whisky barrel is doing to it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Changes at Yamazaki

Sharp eyed habitues of the Yamazaki distillery may have noticed that the famous old sign on the front of the distillery (top left) was changed in the New Year. It now carries the same calligraphy style Japanese characters as the Yamazaki range of single malts.

I can`t help feeling that a bit of the patina has been rubbed from the place but this does confirm one significant and positive development: the idea of a distillery as primarily a place for producing single malt seems, at least symbolically, to be firmly established at Suntory.
Official blog entry is here.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fake Japanese whisky

The sad denouement to the story about the "Rare Old" Japanese whisky is that Serge Valentin has discovered it was fraudulently filled by some Ebay conmen. The bottle itself was genuine and still fascinates me but the fraudsters bought it empty from a legitimate seller and hiked its price by filling it.

For more on this and the resulting "War on Whisky Fakers" that Serge has launched please visit the war room.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Japanese whisky and war (II)

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

In September 1918, as the senseless slaughter of World War I played out its last act in Europe, the people of the remote northern Japanese town of Hakodate must have been a little taken aback to see two large US transport ships sail into their port unannounced.

Siberian expedition soldiers on a troop ship
The boats were full of American soldiers destined to spend the next two years in Siberian wastelands fighting Bolsheviks, long after the kit bags in Europe had been packed up. It was one of the more obscure, unsuccessful and just plain odd adventures in American military history, but it does not concern us here. We are interested only in what happened that night in Hakodate.

The town had nothing to fear from the unexpected arrival of the doughboys - Japan and the US were on the same side at the time - so the bar owners must have been rubbing their hands when the US commanders decided to allow their 3,700 seasick men to go for a stroll while the ships took on coal. One enterprising bar enlisted a foreigner with a sense of humour to try to pull in the troops. A sign in English was erected outside:
"Notice!! Having lately been refitted and preparations have been made to supply those who give us a look-up, with Worst of Liquors and Food at a reasonable price, and served by the Ugliest Female Savants that can be Procured. This establishment cannot boast of a proprietor, but is carried on by a Japanese lady whose ugliness would stand out even in a crowd. The Cook, when his face is washed, is considered the best looking of the company."
The place was soon packed, as were all the other bars and brothels in the town. Major Samuel I. Johnson, with the American Expeditionary Force in Hakodate, told his fellow officers what happened next:
"All the cheap bars have Scotch whiskey made in Japan ... If you come across any, don't touch it. It's called Queen George, and it's more bitched up than its name. It must be eighty-six per cent corrosive sublimate proof, because 3,500 enlisted men were stinko fifteen minutes after they got ashore. I never saw so many get so drunk so fast."
Captain Kenneth Roberts was part of a team sent out to round up the paralytic soldiery:
"Intoxicated soldiers seemed to have the flowing qualities of water, able to seep through doorways, down chimneys, up through floors. When we slowly edged a score of Khaki-clad tosspots from a dive and started them toward the ships, then turned to see if we had overlooked anyone, the room would unbelievably be filled with unsteady doughboys, sprung from God knows where, drunkenly negotiating for the change of American money or the purchase of juss one more boll of Queen George."
The ships hurriedly left Hakodate without the coal they had come for. At the next port, Otaru, only a few troops were allowed off. Queen George had her say there too: an American soldier smashed a bottle over the head of a Japanese policeman.

And so began the GI's long and loving relationship with Japanese whisky. It was not the first time Americans, whisky and the Japanese had been mixed. 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 present. By all accounts, quite a time was had by all. But it was the first time the Japanese had served up their own version and, as you can see, it was a bit of hit.

Incidentally, one slightly serious point can be got from the tale: this all happened in 1918, five years before Suntory built the first proper Japanese distillery at Yamazaki, but the American soldiers definitely thought Queen George, or whatever they were drinking, was whisky in a Scotch style rather than anything more American.

Anyway, as I say, it was by no means the last time US soldiers drank Japanese whisky in large quantities. World War II memoirs are full of captured Japanese whisky keeping the GIs warm at night. They seem to have developed a taste for it because, as soon as the Japanese whisky companies lost their vital Japanese military patronage, they found a new military Sugar Daddy in the shape of the occupying Americans. My trip down this little byroad in Japanese whisky's story was prompted by Serge Valentin, who has this interesting bottle in his collection (visit his website, it's great):

I think it was bottled by Suntory, or Kotobukiya as they were calling themselves then, at some time between 1945 and 1963. (For those who want some of the nerdy detail on why I think that, I have put it here ... and here is an update). It is tangible evidence of the American occupation's part in the Japanese whisky story.

Immediately after 1945, most Japanese people were desperately poor. Things were so bad that a lawyer, who famously tried to live honestly on the standard Japanese rations without resorting to the blackmarkets, died of starvation. There was plenty of drinking going on, but the average Japanese was certainly not drinking quality whisky. A famous drink was the "bakudan" ("bomb"), a mixture of methyl alcohol and disguising liquids. In 1946, the Government recorded 384 "bakudan" deaths. A slightly less deadly moonshine called "Kasutori" was so widely consumed that it gave its name to the whole intoxicated subculture of post-defeat decadence. One blackmarket trader of the time said:
"I drank trying to forget a life that hung suspended like a floating weed."
Whisky was part of a different culture, that of the American occupiers and the favoured Japanese elite who did business with them. The accounts of the US diplomats, administrators and soldiers who ran Japan as a kind of colony between 1945 and 1952 are full of empty bottles of Japanese whisky. The Japanese whisky makers were definitely not complaining. The arrival of the foreigners brought unprecedented profits. In 1940, before Pearl Harbour, Nikka whisky had made 66,662 yen profit before tax. In 1950, it made 278,106 yen. Five years later, it was making 17 million yen. We have to be a bit careful with those figures because there was very high inflation in the first years of the occupation, but the point is that the Japanese whisky companies were still making money. They had managed to change horses from the old elite to the new.

Then came the Korean war. American military procurement accounted for more than a quarter of Japanese exports during the conflict and the Japanese economy never looked back. During the 50s and 60s, normal Japanese people were increasingly able to buy proper whisky and they did so in their millions. It is impossible to say why whisky became the iconic drink of the Japanese boom years. Was its glamour something to do with those over sexed, over paid American soldiers everybody had seen knocking back whiskies in the years of Japan's humiliation? We can't know.

As Serge's bottle shows, however, there was more direct continuing patronage by the Americans for Japan's whisky industry. In the Vietnam War, the local bars and brothels where the GIs drank away their nightmares were often stocked with Japanese whiskies (see, for instance, "Two Score and Ten", History of the 3rd Marine Division, p. 211; or "British GI in Vietnam" by Ian Kemp, p. 178). I contacted the US forces in Japan while writing this post to see if they still sell the stuff in their bars but I haven't had a reply yet. I hope they do because it wasn't just existentialist French philosophers and Imperial Japanese Naval officers who helped build this industry. The humble GI has been doing his bit too ever since that first, "bitched up" encounter in Hakodate.

GI bar during the Vietnam war by Fes Cannady

The Hakodate story is from "Russian Sideshow: America's Undeclared War" , 1918-20 (2003, Brassey's) by Robert L. Willett. pp. 168-69.
The troop transport photograph is from the "America`s secret war" website. I have sought permission to use the photo. The photograph of the GI bar is by Fes Cannady and he has given permission to use the image while retaining all rights.
The account of Kasutori culture is from "Embracing Defeat - Japan in the Aftermath of World War II" (Penguin Books, 2000) by John Dower. pp. 108 and 145. Great book.
I used Olive Checkland's "Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend" as a source for the financial figures.

Dating the "American Forces" bottle

Update: see this post.

This post relates to the old "Blended For American Forces" bottle owned by Serge Valentin which I mentioned in this post. Here is a bit more nerdy detail on dating the bottle:

Serge says he bought the whisky in an internet auction where it was precisely dated as being from "1945". I believe we can be certain of a date in the range 1945-63. The round red Suntory icon at the bottom left and the slogan "First born in Nippon" at the bottom of that logo suggest a connection with Suntory`s white label or Shirofuda brand, which originally appeared in 1929. The "Rare Old Whisky" name is also suggestive of that brand, which was first released with the subtitle "Rare Old Island Whisky" and later adopted "Rare Old Blended Whisky".

There is very little likelihood of Japanese suppliers of US military whisky prior to the war. 1941-45 is, of course, impossible: simply because the two powers were fighting each other and this is an official bottling (all the logos are right). It may be from before 1963 because the company is called Kotobukiya at the bottom of the label and on the neck. In 1963, Kotobukiya changed its name to Suntory, which had previously been only a brand name.

I have a suspicion that it is not actually immediately post war, although I cannot be certain about this. This is because there is no "Made in Occupied Japan" mark. Between 1945 and 1952, Japan, which was not really considered a proper country but rather an occupied territory, carried that mark on its exported products. I would have thought that would have been particularly the case with products made for the US military but I am not absolutely certain that it was universal, so I can't be categorical about a 1952-63 dating. Perhaps it was made solely for consumption by the US military in Japan and perhaps that meant the mark was not considered necessary.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Karuizawa 19 yo (1988/2007) Refill Butt

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive

"Karuizawa 19 yo 1988/2007 (58.3%, The Whisky Fair, refill sherry, 180 bottles.)
Colour: Straw.
Nose: Punchy but much less marked by the cask than the sherry wood 19 yo. Much fruitier as well (tinned pineapples), with notes of ginger and spearmint as well as a little lemon juice. Whiffs of linseed oil and cut cider apples. Starts to ‘sauvignonise’ after a moment. Excellent zing. With water: not much change here, we are still on dry white wine, lemons and pineapples.
Mouth (neat): Punchy but sweet and fruity again. Pear and lemon drops, pineapple jell-O, strawberries, vanilla fudge, a little ginger again, bergamots, chamomile tea, hints of mocha... With water: gets more complex, with quite some grapefruit, ginger, cinchona, vanilla fudge, lemon pie... And then even more ginger. Quite amazing how gingery this one is.
Finish: Long, candied, lemony and gingery. Very good again, even if it hasn’t really got its sibling’s pretty immense stature. SGP:553 – 87 points."
(Serge`s 100 point scoring system is explained on this page and the more precise SGP is explained here)

Karuizawa 19 yo (1988/2007) Sherry Wood

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive

"Karuizawa 19 yo 1988/2007 (60.6%, The Whisky Fair, sherry wood)
Colour: Amber with green hues.
Nose: Very similar to the 1981 but a tad more discreet and more marked by the sherry (but not by the wood) at first nosing. Maybe a little more tobacco and old leather. Great menthol as well. Gets a little beefy after a while. Hints of lovage and dried parsley. Gets really big after a while and maybe a little more complex than the 1981. This is great. With water: it has got more a mineral, mashier taste. A tad more austere now. Funny how it diverges from the 1981 with water. Also notes of ham. Excellent anyway.
Mouth (neat): Very, very close to the 1981, with maybe an extra-roundness (sultanas) and a bigger fruitiness (dried bananas, figs). It’s superb, I must say, but let’s not tempt fate and add a little water to it: it got even closer to the 1981, with maybe just a few more orangey notes and a little less spice and oak. Similar finish. Just as excellent I think. SGP:676 - 91 points."
(Serge`s 100 point scoring system is explained on this page and the more precise SGP is explained here)