Japanese Zen

Japanese Zen

Creating a blending palette

Production 02 Sep 2016 | Interviews | By Stefan van Eycken

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Don't call it Scotch! Japanese blended whisky may have looked towards Scotland for a long time, but like a plant moved to a different habitat, the idea of 'blended whisky' was adapted to the reality of a very different environment right from the start.

Strange as it may seem, there was 'blended whisky' 'made' in Japan - note the quotation marks - decades before the first malt distillery was set up. Pre-1964, the way blended whisky was made in Japan was by pragmatic approximation. In other words, if it smelled and tasted like 'Scotch whisky', then it was 'whisky'. There were of course approximations that were better than others. Some blends contained malt whisky, others very little or none at all. In fact, up until 1968, it was entirely within the legal realm of possibilities to make blended whisky in Japan that didn't contain a single drop of malt whisky. What's more, even the blended whiskies that did contain a portion of malt whisky could not be said to be made 'in the Scottish way'.

Up until the mid-60s, all Japanese blended whiskies were made not with grain whisky (as defined in Scotland) but with so-called 'blending alcohol', i.e. neutral spirits, which could be made from anything really. Most of this 'blending alcohol' never touched any wood. In 1964, Masataka Taketsuru brought a Coffey still over from Scotland and started making proper grain whisky. The first 'genuine' blended whisky in Japan - i.e. made following Scottish practice, a blend of malt and grain whisky - was released in September 1965. Obviously, the grain whisky in the new 'Black Nikka' launched then was only one year old at the time so 'genuine' has to be taken with a pinch of salt. In the decade following Taketsuru's move, other producers also set up proper grain whisky distilleries: Sanraku Ocean's Kawasaki Distillery in 1969, Suntory's Chita Distillery in 1973 and Kirin-Seagram's Fuji Gotemba Distillery towards the end of 1973. The use of 'blending alcohol' in making blended whisky was phased out over the next few decades, but it is still legally acceptable at the time of writing. None of the big producers and very few of the smaller producers still use neutral spirits in their blended whiskies nowadays. Quality comes first now.

It's tempting to conclude that the history of Japanese blended whisky is a slow move from copying the appearance of Scotch blends - in whatever way deemed opportune - to copying the production methods. Again, the reality is quite different. Japanese whisky producers don't swap stock or sell to brokers, so unlike in other traditional whisky producing countries, the entire palette of components for blending has to be produced in-house. The two biggest players, Suntory and Nikka, have two malt whisky distilleries each where a wild variety of malt distillates can be produced. They also produce different types of grain whiskies at their respective grain whisky facilities.

Kirin's Fuji Gotemba Distillery is an example of a distillery where elements from different distilling traditions - Scottish, American and Canadian - are reinterpreted and synthesised in novel ways. Chief Blender Jota Tanaka explains, "The Kirin Gotemba Distillery was established as a joint venture with Seagram to produce various styles of whiskies. Everything - from malt and grain whisky distilling to blending and bottling - is done on site. Not only malt whiskies are produced, but also three different flavour types of grain whisky using different distilling methods. All of those whiskies are used for blending and some of the grain whiskies even play an important role as key components."

The in-house approach has far-reaching implications. As Suntory Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo says, "Blenders in Scotland usually blend whiskies from many distilleries, not just their own. We, however, start from distilling our own 'unblended' whiskies. We can decide what type of whisky to distill depending on the blending plans. Being able to make whisky from a blender's point of view is a salient characteristic of Japanese whisky making." At the big whisky companies in Japan, the chief blender plays a crucial role not just in creating whiskies for the market now, but also in developing new types of unblended malt and grain whiskies. They propose distilling volumes and types of raw materials (barley, yeast, casks, etc.) to be used. In other words, they create the whiskies that will make up their - and their successors' - blending palette from scratch.

For the small producers, things are a little different. They obviously don't have the means - and don't sell the volume - to set up a grain distillery. When they create a blended whisky, they usually use grain whisky imported from abroad (Canada, for the most part). This is an interesting reversal of the situation in the 70s and early 80s, when smaller producers would make their own 'blending alcohol' in-house but import malt whisky in bulk from Scotland.

Another crucial difference with blended whisky making in Scotland is that chief blenders in Japan have to make sure their blends will work well when drunk long, i.e. in a highball or drunk mizuwari-style. Most whisky in Japan is drunk long.

The domestic market for Japanese blended whiskies is estimated at around 10,680,000 cases (figure for 2015). Suntory's Kakubin is the leading blend (3,760,000 cases), followed by Nikka's 'Black Nikka' (2,756,000 cases). This year is the 60th anniversary of the 'Black' brand and Nikka are hoping to break the three million barrier to add luster to the occasion. Together, Kakubin and Black Nikka account for 61 per cent of the total domestic blended whisky market. To be able to make a dent in this, other producers are forced to be creative. Kirin's 'Fujisanroku Tarujuku 50°' (219,000 cases) is a case in point. "The key concept for this expression," says Jota Tanaka, "was to deliver a blended whisky as close to the whisky straight out of the barrel as possible so that people could enjoy both a barrel tasting and the art of blending in one and the same dram." Bottled at 50% ABV, the new version - launched earlier this year - is unique among entry-level Japanese blended whiskies in being presented non-chill filtered.

Abroad, Japanese whisky may conjure up images of people sipping Karuizawa single casks or chasing Hanyu 'Cards', but on the ground, Japanese whisky is all about modestly priced blends such as Kakubin, Black and Fujisanroku.
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