This is my account of [and subsequent elaborations/learnings on] Malt n Copper’s: ‘Pick a Nikka’, 15th June 2017 – hosted by ‘Nick, Spam, Adam & Steve’.
About 100 years ago, you were about as likely to see a Ryukyuan drinking whisky in Fukushima as you are a Glaswegian sipping warm sake in a Wetherspoons. Though brewing & distillation had been exercised in Japanese for many hundreds of years, sake remained the national drink right up until the late 20th century – whisky wasnt yet on the cards. However, with both sake & whisky associated with highly-skilled time-honoured practises handed down through the generations & taken as drinks to be savoured, it can surely be no accident that many of the early Japanese whisky makers [and beer brewers], came from a rich sake heritage background.
Though sake is a rice wine made much like beer, produced by extracting sugars from the starch of rice, some distillation is used in some cases. For some varieties of sake, a small amount of distilled alcohol [called brewer’s alcohol] is employed, a process that extracts/imparts added aromas & flavours to the rice wine. Japanese distillation had been introduced from Ryukyu into the Kyushu district back in the 16th century. This eventually led to the widespread brewing of shōchū wiki in Japan, a distilled beverage typically bottled at 25% abv and distilled from rice, barley, potatoes and even carrots for example. Shochu is often double [and sometimes triple distilled], bringing the abv up to approx 35-45% and likely to be accompanied with mixers at this strength – often served with ice water or soda [Highball-styley], around 5-10% abv. Shochu currently remains highly popular after beer [Japans #1], whilst the Highball has enjoyed a resurgence since it was popularised in the 1950’s.
A hundred years on, Japan has become synonymous with whisky making tradition per se, and furthermore the producer of some of the most desirable & most expensive whiskies in the world. Tonight, Malt n Copper focused on two key players who have contributed to the short yet stella rise of Japanese whisky – so far.
Masataka Taketsuru wiki, known as ‘the father of Japanese whisky’.
- Taketsuru’s family owned a sake brewery that dates back to 1733.
- 1918: Masataka arrives in Scotland from Japan to study organic & applied chemistry at Glasgow University. During his studies he is employed at three distilleries which prove invaluable apprenticeships.
- Longmorn [April 1919].
- James Calder’s Bo’ness distillery in the Lowlands [July 1919]
- Hazelburn [May 1920]
- During this time he also marries ‘Rita’ [January 1920], after meeting her through Rita’s younger sister Ella [also studying at Edinburgh], who had asked Masataka to teach Judo their younger brother.
- Still in 1920 [a busy busy year], he returns to Japan with Rita [via New York & Seattle], and with expert whisky knowledge of single malts, grains & blends made from pot & Coffey stills [as well as maturation education no doubt], and the desire to make Japanese whisky.
- 1923: He commits to a ten year contract with the Kotobukiya Company [owned by Shinjiro Torii], to build a Japanese whisky distillery.
Shinjiro Torii [ub] – known as the founder of Japanese whisky.
- Shinjori initially starts out as a wine & spirits importer, establishing his Torii Shoten store in Osaka in 1899.
- 1921: After much success [most notably from Akadama sweet wine], Shinjori establishes the Kotobukiya Company with the desire to create Japanese whisky.
- 1923: He hires Taketsuru to help establish the construction of the Yamasaki distillery which would later become Suntory – currently one of the power-houses of the global spirits industry.
Creation of the Japanese whisky industry
- 1934: Taketsuru starts his own distillery, Yoichi on the island of Hokkaido, which later becomes Nikka – another of Japan’s spirits powerhouses. He believed this island to be the most like Scotland and therefore ideal for whisky making.
- 1973: The Hakushu distillery is built. Situated in the midst of the forest of the Southern Japanese alps, Torii believed this place to be the ideal location for making whisky.
- 1979: Taketsuru dies, buried in Yoichi together with his wife Rita who had died previously in 1961 of liver disease & TB.
- Up until the 1980s sake was still Japans #1 alcoholic beverage [rapidly pursued by beer], whilst fabulous distilleries such as Hanyu were done & dusted [closed & demolished] by 2000.
- Japanese whisky exports only begun in earnest in the late 2000s into the 2010s with Yamazaki 10yo WB for example, available in UK supermarkets for around £40-45 – expect to pay 4-5x that now. Meanwhile, the world-wide reputation [& prices] of the juice from Japan’s closed distilleries [Hanyu, Kawasaki [dekanta], Karuizawa for example], was beginning to gather speed at the same velocity as awards for currently available Japanese whisky were growing.
- From September 2014 to March 2015, a popular television series called Massan wiki, ran everyday for 6 months. It is a fictionalised account of the love/partnership between Masataka Taketsuru & Jessie Roberta ‘Rita’ Cowan, their move to Japan and Taketsuru’s desire to make Japanese whisky.
As a result of this TV exposure, domestic sales of Japanese whisky rose dramatically [estimates of up to 50%]. Subsequently, exports were severely limited as demand outstripped supply on an unprecedented level. Then age statements were lost, vintages were dropped [as well as abvs], and prices rose & rose & rose.
Tonight we try 6 malts from Nikka, only two with age statements and with hefty prices to boot. Lets see where we are at in 2017.
[Thats enough for today, as theres rather a lot. See next post where we open all the boxes and taste all the juices].
Part 2 HERE