Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Photos © Julen Esteban-Pretel
In a few weeks’ time, Dave Broom will be back in Japan for Whisky Live Tokyo (September 19, noon-6pm, Akiba Square) – after being sorely missed for more than two years. He’ll also be hosting the pre-Whisky Live party at the Park Hotel the night before (so that’s, September 18, 7:30-9:30pm). Ahead of his return, we picked his brain about various developments on the whisky scene since the last time he was here… and there’s a funny road story, too, so do read all the way to the end.
You make it sound like a royal visit! The only reason I sadly couldn’t make it last year was a clash of dates. I’m delighted to be coming back. What’s happened? I’ve been busy. A new edition of “The World Atlas of Whisky” has been written, as has “Gin: The Manual”. I’m currently working on the third in the series, on rum. I’ve started work on a new website www.scotchwhisky.com which is launching soon. I’ve been around the world a few times - including a couple of trips to Mexico to see agave spirit production.
These days, distilleries are popping up like mushrooms – not just in Scotland, but in other places around the world as well. It must be a nightmare to keep you “World Atlas of Whisky” updated! What are your thoughts on this development?
It’s fantastic news. It is certainly challenging to try and keep abreast of what is going on but that’s a nice problem to have. We’re currently working out what the 3rd edition will be like! The development is a positive one. New distillers will have new ideas and help stimulate interest in this thing called whisky. The best are asking that question: “what is whisky?” and how can I make one which reflects my place. By challenging the orthodoxies of whisky production they are refreshing the category.
Several new distillery projects – independently owned – are in the works in Japan, too. What would your advice be to the people in charge of these projects?
New distillers around the world will occasionally ask me this. My feeling is that they have to discover their individuality (in terms of the whisky or whiskies they are trying to make). It is pointless to try and compete with Suntory or Nikka. New distilleries need to learn from the established whisky makers but also be true to themselves. That means looking at their surroundings: what grows around them, what techniques are used for smoking food (you don’t have to use peat to make smoky whisky!), how does your place speak to you? Those new distilleries will all be smaller – they will be local – so that sense of place therefore has to be more heavily emphasized.
Also, don’t rush your whisky to the market. Release it when it is showing it has darted it journey through maturity.
My advice to these distillers around the world who ask me this question is “go to see Ichiro Akuto.” Learn from him but don’t try and copy his whisky. Go and make your own.
They are two separate issues.
No Age [NAS] is an inevitable consequence of an unforeseen upturn in demand for whisky globally. Distillers around the world – be they in Scotland, America or Japan – could not have foreseen this 12, 15, 18 years ago. Consequently, there are not sufficient stocks. NAS is the result.
When well handled, there is nothing inherently wrong with a NAS whisky. Taking an age statement off the label allows the whisky maker to use younger and older whiskies to achieve a balanced and complex result.
You could argue that age statements gave the false impression that ‘older = better’. That’s not true. There is a difference between age and maturity. Age is a number, maturity is a character. That said, the NAS whiskies which are appearing should, in my mind, be as good if not better than the whiskies they are replacing, especially if they are more expensive. Many are. Some, sadly, are not.
Will the trend be reversed? I think we will see age statements creeping back as the stock situation eases but there have also been a lot of positive learnings from NAS so they won’t go away.
On price. The rise in the very top end is eyebrow-raising certainly. That said, looking at prices in the UK and other European markets over the past decade, you'll see that standard malts haven’t risen dramatically (apart from a couple of notable exceptions), and while premium has moved up a little more steeply in general, the whiskies are still fairly priced. It is the top end which has gone ballistic. In other words, there is still value to be had.
You could argue that whisky was seriously underpriced for too long. The industry was giving away its finest whiskies and we all got used to the fact. It was great! Those days have gone. We have to get used to the fact that at the top end there will be bottles which we cannot afford. The prices aren’t coming down again.
The most obvious change has been the arrival of NAS. In more general terms, it has been the amazing rise in interest globally in Japanese whisky. Everyone wants it - which then puts more pressure, in the short to medium term, on stock. In some ways, it is a nice problem to have; in others, it is frustrating for producers because they want to be able to sell their whisky to as many people as possible. New capacity has gone in and the situation will ease. My concern is whether by the time stock is available once more, the market will have moved on. Japan may no longer be the hot new style - it could be Canada, or bourbon, or Ireland. Producers therefore need to achieve a very clever balancing act to maintain interest in Japanese whisky internationally during this difficult period of transition. One way could be through blends.
The other thing has been the way that Japan has been slower to embrace the new small distilling trend. Things are now changing but there still aren’t enough new whisky distilleries. It is hard to build a category when there are only two producers - that’s the situation Ireland faced for many years. Any industry needs to have choice, different approaches, different aromas and flavours, different philosophies. It will happen in Japan I am sure, but the start of this natural evolution has been slower than I anticipated. It still baffles me why Karuizawa was closed at a time of peak demand for Japanese whisky and why Gotemba isn’t seen internationally.
Just out of curiosity: what’s the last dram you’ve had that blew you away? What’s the first place you want to go to when you get back to Japan?
The new Octmore 7.1 from Bruichladdich. Still young but already complex. As a statement of intent, it is hugely impressive. I’m about to taste 12 new whiskies though so that answer may well change by midday.
In Tokyo: Star Bar, Bar Zoetrope and then Golden Gai. The next day, head to buy vinyl.
Do you have any funny ‘road stories’ from your travels in Japan over the years (you can change names, to protect the innocent, obviously)?
I think the time when - in a spirit of celebration - we unwittingly broke every rule of onsen behaviour. Thinking we would be the only people bathing at midnight, we took a bottle of cask strength whisky [Karuizawa, to be precise] to the sauna. Mistake No 1. There was a Japanese man having a quiet contemplative time as four huge, hairy... naked gaijin burst through the door. He politely declined our offer of drink and left. Speedily.
After that, we went to the baths themselves. The first was a large pool. The second, however, was a tiny black cube only accessed through a low, crooked passageway which stopped any light from penetrating. We silently groped our way in (still clutching the whisky) and felt for the ledge on which to sit. One of our party - a large man - then lowered himself down onto what he thought was the ledge but turned out to be the lap of the Japanese man who had fled from the sauna. There was considerable confusion.
In our next post about Whisky Live/Modern Malt Market 2015, we’ll talk about what visitors can expect from this edition… masterclasses, special bottlings, rare drams for tasting, … Watch this space!