A special relationship

A special relationship

Michael Jackson takes a reflective look at Japan, Scotland and whisky

Production | 16 Nov 2001 | Issue 19 | By Michael Jackson

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If you ask me, any civilised society has the potential to enjoy alcoholic drinks made from grains. When human beings stopped being hunter-gatherers and began to become civilised they did so in order to grow grain and make beer, which is the first stage in the production of whisky. If the Sumerian brewers were still with us they might be producing malts with a
lapis lazuli finish.When grain-based alcoholic drinks spread to western Europe, they were made from barley. When they spread east, there was rice fermented to make sake in China and Japan, and distilled into shochu. This ancient history always comes to mind when people in Europe talk about Japanese interest in western beer and whisky as though it were somehow incongruous. If a country grows grain and has centuries of experience in fermentation and distillation, it seems pretty well qualified to me.
Fermentation is big in Japan. If you love the sights, sounds and smells of fermentation, visit a soy sauce brewery next time you are in Japan. If you want to prove to your Japanese hosts that you are a man, eat some natto, a form of fermented soy that is even more faecal smelling than Asia’s notoriously malodorous fruit the durian. Natto, or even the ubiquitous wasabi, also gives the lie to the curious notion that the Japanese eat only light foods (and can therefore enjoy only light whiskies). I don’t swallow the notion of a national taste but I do believe that the comfort offered by a staple grain enters the collective memory. Give us our daily bread? Liquid bread is a German expression for beer. “Bread” and “brewed” are etymologically the same word. Those Sumerians were trying to find a way of making grain consumable by mixing it with water. The wild yeasts got there first and the mash gained an extra dimension.The sense that grain means survival is part of the Japanese consciousness too. I saw an eastern mirror-image of this one night at dinner in Kyoto. The city is famous for the delicacy of its cuisine and my hosts were determined to show me why. After years of visits to Japan, I had never experienced quite such intricate dishes, such colours, aromas and textures. This gastronomic art gallery of miniatures, each in its own decorative frame of cedar or porcelain, seemed endless. My neighbour at the table gently insisted that I taste the appropriate sauce or condiment with each delicacy. Finally, the rice arrived. Taking up his bowl, my neighbour turned to me and said with huge satisfaction: “Now we are eating!” As we ate, out came the sake, beer and whisky – seemingly in no particular order. It was the gathering of the grains. The formality of the Japanese and their eclecticism can be experienced in one sitting. Like almost every other country, Japan is the travel page’s “land of contrasts”. It’s all to do with the tides of history. European, especially Portuguese, influence in Japan is not as new as is often assumed. It dates back to the mariners and explorers of the 1500s. I can think of several countries that have had civil wars, perhaps followed by a period of introspection, then a cultural and economic restoration. The “closed” Japan lasted 200 years. The “open” Japan, the one that so readily absorbs and adapts ideas, was initially a response to an American trial run at globalisation: the visit from the US Navy, in the form of Commodore Perry’s smoky “Black Ships” in 1853, followed by a Treaty of Friendship and Trade. Japan then opened wide under Emperor Meiji. Unifying, modernising, leaders were a worldwide phenomen, too, at a time when the Industrial Revolution was developing steamships, railways, telephones, refrigeration ... That’s how sake-drinking Japan added western-style beer to its portfolio. Americans built Japan’s first beer brewery, in Yokohama, as early as 1869 and this later gave rise to Kirin – now a world giant. The Irish, Netherlanders and Bavarians all played a part in the industry’s early growth. In 1869, the Japanese government sent a researcher to Germany to study brewing. These developments of 150 years ago still resound in Japan. A life-size working replica of the first American brewery was built a few years ago in the grounds of Kirin’s Beer Village, a huge tourist attraction in Yokohama. Malting barley was being grown as early as the 1870s, albeit for beer, on the northern island of Hokkaido. This gave rise to today’s Sapporo and Asahi brewingcompanies. Sake is made from rice but, contrary to myth, Japanese beers are based on barley malt – like anyone else’s. Some are lightened with rice, but so is American Budweiser. As a distributor of cultural icons, the US may have long overtaken the British but even many Americans still enjoy subscribing to a Britain bracketed by Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Morse: the comfortingly clubby Britain of Burberry raincoats, Tanqueray Gin, Ballantine’s, golf, vintage Jaguars and Rugby Union. In the Meiji days, the British empire was at its peak and much admired in Japan. “At the beginning of the Meiji era (in the 1870s) ... the Japanese tasted – with interest and curiosity – ‘zin’, imported gin,” according to social historian Olive Checkland. “From that date, there were those who were anxious to make western spirits in Japan. In general, spirit manufacturers emerged from chemist’s shops.” Professor Checkland talks of “ersatz” whisky that had “never been near a column still or a pot still” and of “artificial spirits” made from a wide range of alcohols, sugar, perfumes, spices and flavourings. She does not repeat the familiar story of a Japanese whisky labelled “made with Scottish grapes”.I have seen a lot of historical items in Japan but never such a label, I suspect it never existed. When one nation wishes to be patronising about another, a few condescending myths always help.There are still British who condescend and the warm humour of the Japanese does not indicate unreserved acceptance of
the geijin. The Japanese live on a group of relatively small, densely-populated, islands off the coast of Asia. That can breed insularity but also force inhabitants to look outward. No one is far from the sea. Where would you find a similar ambivalence? How about a small, densely populated island that accommodates three nations off the coast of Europe?The Japanese, living on mountainous islands with craggy coastlines, relate especially to the Scots. The relationship became special soon after the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912. Japan had a further appraisal of its policies and seems to have decided that its economy would benefit if local producers of drinks were given a chance and taxes on imports were raised. One such company was the Settsu Shuzo, founded by a man named Kihei Abe. In 1917 he was recruiting staff at the technical high school that is now the University of Osaka. He made an historic choice.
With several generations of sake brewers in his family, Masataka Taketsuru, aged 23, was said to be keen and conscientious. The family seems to have been well-connected: one of his contemporaries at high school later became Prime Minister of Japan. The more influential in the long term would be Taketsuru. He was a senior student at the college and training as a chemist but switched to brewing when that discipline was introduced. However, he never formally graduated because he was hired by Kihei Abe as a chemist.Taketsuru’s is a celebrated story. In 1918 he was sent to Scotland to learn to make “genuine whisky”. He spent two years in Scotland as chemistry student at both the University of Glasgow and the Royal College (now the University of Strathclyde), worked briefly at Hazelburn, in Campbeltown, and for a few days at Longmorn, on Speyside. While in Scotland he lodged with a doctor’s family and married one of their daughters, who spent the rest of her life with him in Japan. I didn’t know the details until I read Professor Checkland’s book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend. This book is a biography of Taketsuru who, remarkably, not only played an important role in the establishment of Suntory’s first whisky distillery at Yamazaki in the 1920s but also built the Nikka distillery, in Yoichi, in the 1930s. According to Professor Checkland, the sales of “genuine” whisky were undermined by continued consumer acceptance of sub-standard make at lower prices. “Taketsuru’s ambitions were always at odds with the demands of the marketing personnel, who knew they could sell third-rate whiskies with relative ease.” That battle seems to have been won by the mid the 1950s. A decade or so later, the Japanese way with whisky had developed sufficient muscle to influence Europe. I remember a Dutch businessman taking me to a bottle-keeping bar in Amsterdam. It was clearly thought to be very fashionable, and that was only the 1960s. I made my first visit to Japan in the 1980s. From Honshu, the main island, it was easy to see how Hokkaido could be seen as an Far Eastern ‘Scotland’. When I went to Yoichi and visited the Nikka Distillery there, I was astonished at its traditionalism. There was no Nikka single malt at the time, but I was impressed by the peatiness of the blends. Suntory’s malt distilleries, at Yamazaki and Hakushu, were dazzling in their scale, beautiful in their design and technically adventurous. The company had just stepped tentatively into the single malt market: I liked the maltiness of its Yamazaki and hoped there would be more singles to come. Even Suntory’s grain distillery in Nagoya had a certain majesty. Suntory and Kirin-Seagram had the most dramatic warehouses I had ever seen. Sanraku Ocean reminded me of Edradour – though the Perthshire distillery didn’t have its own cooperage.At times, it seemed like a parallel universe. The distillers I met were proud of their make and they stressed these were Japanese whiskies – though clearly inspired by those of Scotland. At the same time the affection, and respect, for Scotland and its whiskies burned brightly.Today, Nikka Yoichi Single Cask 10 and Suntory Hibiki 21 lead Whisky Magazine’s Best of the Best tasting, Japanese companies own an impressive portfolio of Scottish distilleries and bartenders and consumers from Tokyo and Osaka spend their short holidays in the glens of Scotland. It has turned out to be quite a relationship.
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