FYI - Here is an recent article from the National Post (Canada). (Warning - long article.)
Scotland shamed: Japan wins whisky challenge
Saturday, November 22, 2003
The bottle of 20-year-old Nikka Yoichi.
After the skirl of bagpipes faded and the blind taste test of single-malt whiskies was over, the winning dram was clear -- a 20-year-old Nikka Yoichi, distilled in Hokkaido, Japan.
The surprise ending to the Scotland versus Japan challenge, which placed venerable Scotch whiskies against single malts from Japan, highlights the degree to which the Japanese have devoured not only the massive quantities of Scotch they import, but the entire whisky-making process.
"Japan has done with whisky what it has done in so many fields of endeavour," says James Heron, the executive director of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, which hosted the tasting in Toronto this week. "They take a product from an outside culture, take it apart, examine it, find ways of improving and adapting the original and then produce something better," he said.
What is emerging from giant distilleries springing up about the Japanese islands is a drink that mimics Scotch in every way; not being from Scotland, however, trade laws preclude these malts being labelled Scotch.
"As a Scotch drinker, comparing these Japanese whiskies certainly was a curiosity for me," said Kenichiro Noma, a Toronto teacher who organized the test.
"This was a group of average whisky drinkers and it shows that Nikka and the other Japanese distilleries are making some pretty damn good whiskies," he said.
The Japanese have been trying to replicate Scotch for 70 years.
In 1918, Masataka Taketsuru, the Father of Japanese Whisky, travelled to Scotland to learn the art of distillation. Returning to Japan -- with a Scottish bride and deep whisky knowledge -- he was hired in 1924 to build the Yamazaki distillery near Osaka.
A decade later, he left to build his own, Nikka's Yoichi distillery on the island of Hokkaido, an area he felt closely replicated Scotland's coastal climate.
The Japanese whiskies are now drawing serious attention.
Last year, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, based in Edinburgh, included two Japanese whiskies in its listing, the first foreign malts offered to its connoisseur members.
"Nationalistic drinking is all well and good, and we can all spend red-nosed evenings proclaiming that no one can make whisky as divine as Scotland's without the same geology, water and climate," said Arthur Motley, spokesman for the society, in arguing the newcomers should be given a fair tasting.
"The Scotch whisky industry is still the envy of the world.... It is a huge sign of Scotch's success that whisky is now being distilled from Tasmania to Canada and most countries in between."
The Japanese have displayed a deep thirst for Scotch.
Misako Udo, a 44-year-old woman, moved to Edinburgh from Nagasaki to start a Scotch bar boasting the best selection in Europe. The 574 bottles at M's Malt Whisky Bar, each containing a different malt, were kept neatly lined up behind glass, like rare books in a library.
"Whisky is my baby -- I don't have any family. I don't have any children. Whisky is my life. I have dedicated my life to whisky," Ms. Udo told me on a recent trip to Scotland, as we sat in chairs made from old Scotch whisky barrels.
Asked which Scotch was her favourite, her voice quavered: "Can you ask a mother, 'Which of your children is your favourite?' Each whisky is my favourite. Each has its own character."
Ms. Udo recently closed her beloved bar because not enough Scots shared her dedication.
Kenneth Storrie, proprietor of The Pot Still, a pub in Glasgow, received a phone call from a businessman in Tokyo asking if he had a bottle of Kinclaith Scotch available. The Kinclaith distillery was demolished in 1975 and its whisky is difficult to find.
Mr. Storrie had two bottles and was told not to sell another drop. The businessman and his friends flew to Glasgow the next day and came straight to the pub.
"They came in, sat down and drank both bottles. They then asked if they could take the empties back home with them and left," Mr. Storrie said.
Back in Toronto, a group of 30 whisky tasters was presented with unlabelled samples of a 10-year-old, 12-year-old and 20-year-old Nikka Yoichi and three renowned Scotches: a 16-year-old Lagavulin and 12-year-old whiskies from Cragganmore and Balvenie.
Each was scored for colour, aroma, taste and finish. The names of each were then revealed.
On my scorecard, the oldest Nikka Yoichi edged out the Lagavulin by two points. It was a tally echoed by the group, which placed Lagavulin second, the 12-year-old Yoichi third and the Balvenie fourth. The 10-year-old Yoichi came next with the Cragganmore in last place.
The 20-year-old Yoichi is an immense and powerful drink.
Bronze-red in colour, its aroma is pungent, sharp with an alcohol twang and a slightly sulfurous waft of peat. Below all that sharpness, however, is a bed of sweetness with the scents of honey, pears and oak noticeable.
Its taste is nutty and strong.
As the overproof alcohol evaporates, a salty, smokey flavour remains. A muscular dram with a sustained finish enlivening the entire mouth, it is not a whisky for the timid but a tremendous find for those who enjoy a tidal wave of flavour in each sip.
It retails for a steep $250. That drops considerably, to $87, for the 12-year-old and $56 for the 10. That compares to $90 for the Lagavulin and $55 for the Balvenie.
The Japanese offerings are not widely available in Canada.
"Logistically, we haven't been able to make it work yet," said Shotaro Ozawa, sales manager for Ozawa Canada, Inc., which represents the distillery here.
"We hope to see it available soon. I think it would sell well, especially on the coattails of the Japanese food boom," he said.
© Copyright 2003 National Post