Sunday, March 23, 2008

Yamazaki 12 Watami President Choice - Coca-Cola of single malts

Miki Watanabe, boss of the huge Watami chain of restaurants and izakayas, is the Richard Branson of Japanese business. He has made his own personality his main brand since coming straight out of university to found a single restaurant in 1984. He now has more than 630.

The name of the chain is derived from his own and, though he runs all sorts of establishments from classy drinking haunts to more food focused restaurants, they invariably carry the same "Watami" characters on their signboards. There are lots of variations but these two kanji seem to crop up on every other street I walk down here:

It usually pays to be sceptical of business celebrities and the wares they hawk but I have to admit to being a Watami fan. The staff are better trained than the other big chains, the menus are innovative and of fairly high quality and the restaurants make a thing of stocking good alcohol. Order a glass of sake (Nihonshu) or shochu at random from a Watami menu and you are likely to be served something worth drinking.

Watami has also been doing its single malt whisky homework. It seems to have a tie up with Suntory and has blends and single malts available from their range. I was excited to discover on my last visit that Watami now stocks its own unique Yamazaki bottling. Predictably, given the Watanabe personality cult, it is called "Watami President Choice". It is a 12-year-old single malt but tasted quite different to me from the standard Yamazaki 12.

When I say Watami`s staff are well trained, I am comparing them to the absolutely abysmal standards you get in big chains in the big cities. The girl who took my order at Watami for a straight "Watami President Choice" came back with it on the rocks. However, she corrected her mistake efficiently and politely. The drink itself was palatable. A sweet start with caramel. Chewy toffees. Nothing really developed from there. It is a very well rounded whisky, almost too well rounded: inoffensive to the point of being boring. Would it be rude to call this sherry casked charmer the Coca-Cola of single malts?

I enjoyed my drink but I wouldn't rave about it. What I would rave about is the fact that there is a proper Japanese single malt being aggressively marketed by one of the most successful restaurant and izakaya chains in Japan. That is likely to introduce more people to quality whisky than a thousand connoisseur tastings.

43 per cent
Price (March 2008)
660 ml - 5,248 yen
Single: 523 yen
Double: 1,048 yen
(All prices include tax. I presume you can keep the bottle at the restaurant. I doubt you would be able to take it out. It is probably best to try to check the rules with the staff before buying.)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What? Noh whisky?

Bakuryu being performed at Whisky Live! Tokyo

A Noh play about whisky? When I first heard the idea, I was flabbergasted.

Of the two major forms of Japanese theatre, Noh and Kabuki, Noh is by reputation the hardest to approach. Kabuki has all the exuberant populism of Shakespearean theatre. It traces its roots back to dance and light drama performances in Kyoto in 1603, about the same time Shakespeare was writing Othello, and has always retained its popular feel. It was a particular obsession of old Tokyo. Edward Seidensticker's history of Tokyo quotes an old aphorism that "the son of Kyoto ruined himself over dress, the son of Osaka ruined himself over food and the son of Edo ruined himself looking at things ... Performances were central to Edo culture, and at the top of the hierarchy, the focus of Edo connoisseurship, was the Kabuki theatre... The great Kabuki actors set tastes and were popular heroes and the Kabuki was for anyone, except perhaps the self-consciously aristocratic, who had enough money."

Noh has none of this populism. It has a much longer history than Kabuki and is essentially a religious ceremony, performed on consecrated ground and usually telling stories connected with death. Its dramas are very simple, stretched out over long periods with extended poetic monologues and very slow stage movements. The main character wears a mask. You cannot even see a face. Modern Japanese people have difficulty understanding the archaic language.

And yet Noh can actually be more rewarding than Kabuki for the foreigner. The fact that Noh's words are fairly incomprehensible and that they are really designed to provide a beautiful context for the movement on the stage actually makes the drama rather easy to appreciate for the non-Japanese speaker. There is word-play in Noh, but these are not fast, wise cracking stories that can turn on a few dramatic words. As long as you mug up on the often very simple tale before the performance, you can actually understand quite a lot of the context of the actors' lyrical movements and focus your mind on the wonder of the Noh mask: although its expression is completely fixed, the performer seems to fill the seemingly blank face with changing feeling by skillfully moving it in the light.

We are living in a time of great inventiveness in Japanese traditional theatre and arts in general. Some of the top performers regularly participate in the NHK children`s program "Nihongo de Asobou" in delightfully inventive sketches and dances. There are Kabuki performances of Shakespeare in the national theatre and now a newly written Noh play about whisky called "Bakuryu" ("gathering of the barley").

We got a glimpse of part of the play, written and performed by the Kamiasobi troupe, as part of the entertainment at Whisky Magazine Live! Tokyo. There was a full performance at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo on February 3. Bakuryu's plot goes something like this:
Deep in the Scottish highlands a long long time ago, a distiller cries about the heavy whisky tax and prays for happier times. A very old man appears, saying he is the keeper of a pure water source. He tells the craftsman that if he follows his directions everything will be alright. He promises to return when the barrel is opened and disappears.

The distiller follows the old man's instructions faithfully. After many years, he brings the barrel to the shrine. The old man, who all along was the barley god Bakuryu (is his name suggestive of Bacchus??) , appears. He praises the distiller and explains the virtue of whisky: it is the water of life and encourages a calm mind and spirit. When the barrel is opened, angels appear and dance (the angel's share?). The god promises peace and happiness and disappears once again.
I was frustrated to have missed the full performance at the National Noh theatre. The glimpse I got at Whisky Live! just rubbed it in: a unique play about a topic close to my heart performed with all the grace and haunting beauty of the Noh tradition. The Kamiasobi leaders told the audience at Whisky Live! that they were themselves devoted whisky drinkers and the play had grown out of their interest. I am sure there were also some robustly commercial incentives. They had bottles of specially labeled Bakuryu malt available at the National Theatre and it must have made a great ad for Whisky Live. But isn't commercialism and culturepreneurship a vital element of almost all periods of great cultural creativity? I find it exciting that this old art is not stuck in the mud but splashing around with these great new heresies.

Bakuryu whisky

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A phoenix from the ashes

Ichiro Akuto (centre) amid the throng at Whisky Live

Update: A visit to the new distillery
Update: The ground breaking ceremony at Chichibu

The big news circulating the main hall at Whisky Magazine Live! Tokyo was the granting of a distillery licence to Ichiro Akuto's new Chichibu distillery.

Akuto, the man behind the Ichiro's Malt range, received final official notification on the eve of the big powwow at Tokyo Big Sight last month. Judging by the crowds at his stand, which were by far the thickest in the hall, there is plenty of interest in the venture.

It is a happy development in what had once looked like a very sad story. Eight years after the old Akuto family run distillery went bankrupt, Chichibu area is once again on the whisky map and under Akuto leadership.

The success of the enterprise will largely rely on tapping the booming interest in Japanese whisky in the international market. Akuto has focused on the global market with his current Ichiro's malt range, largely sourced from barrels from the old distillery, and, despite the queues at the Whisky Live! stand, it is the global market that Japanese whisky makers now look to for growth.

Akuto was one of three big hitters from the Japanese whisky establishment who discussed "The globalisation of Japanese whisky" in a round table with Dave Broom of Whisky Magazine at the Whisky Live event. Tetsuji Hisamitsu, Nikka's chief blender and Hiroyoshi "Mike" Miyamoto, general manager of Suntory's Yamazaki distillery were also on the panel.

Broom said Japanese whisky was now being taken very seriously indeed in Europe: "You are beginning to see people getting very excited about the quality and the character of Japanese whisky. The quality of the spirit is superb."

The panelists were unanimous about the trigger for the new found international profile: the 2001 Whisky Magazine Awards in which the Yoichi 10 grabbed the "Best of the Best" prize and other recent international competition wins for both Nikka and Suntory whiskies.

Akuto was fulsome in his praise for work done by the big two: "They have already put down the foundations for exporting and now the market is looking for very unique Japanese whiskies."

But if competition success was pulling Japan onto the world market, there was a less positive push behind the globalisation. Nikka's Hisamitsu admitted: "Even though Japanese whisky is doing well abroad , Japanese whisky has been having very difficult times domestically." Both the other panelists agreed that the collapse of the "bubble economy" in the 1990s had left Japan with large whisky making capacity and a much reduced mass market.

The best way to survive in the current conditions, said Akuto, was a "focus on unique high quality products" and an openness to foreign opportunities.

"In the past we were not confident that we would find a good reception but nowadays there is such a variegated market. Some people are looking for easy to drink whisky, others are looking for something much more challenging," Akuto said.