Killing the Cool : Understanding the rise of Japanese whisky

whiskyart7“I think it has a lot to do with that concept of killing the cool – that philosophy where once something becomes popular it has to be killed, and then you jump onto something else. At the end of the day, it’s really about trend.” – Linh Do

by Janne Barklis

Linh Do tends bar. She has that up-close-and-personal relationship with trends, especially in the spirits world, as only one serving up sought-after intoxications can. I reached out to this wildly intelligent whisky enthusiast because I wanted to learn more about when, how and why Japanese whisky claimed blog, bar, liquor store and conversation spotlight.

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The once monstrously popular Scotch trend has been deposed, and the new cool is out there, taking over our tumblers. From Linh’s viewpoint, that new cool is equal parts Bourbon and equal parts Japanese whisky. Connection? It appears not: “It just happened at the same time,” says Linh, who works at Bar Jackalope, a self-described Japanese whisky bar in Los Angeles. “It wasn’t that people were trying to switch from certain profiles because bourbon tastes totally different from Japanese whiskies, with the exception of the Nikka Coffee Grain.”

What seems to be generally agreed upon is that Japanese whisky can trace its popularity back to two distinct events — Suntory’s acquiring our very own Jim Beam in January 2014 and Jim Murray’s proclaiming Suntory’s Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 as the best whisky in the world in his 2015 Whisky Bible. “It started to create this giant snowball effect where people were just insanely crazy about Japanese whiskies,” Linh says. “And then the stocks of Suntory started to run out. People started to explore other brands.”

whiskyart5 (2)The whisky world is still small and there are only a few big hitters in the American market. With this handful of names, you can maneuver most any conversation. Suntory is a company with two distilleries and three whisky series: Yamazaki and Hakushu, named after distilleries, and Hibiki, their blend. The Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries belong to Nikka. And then there are Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, the men who started Suntory.

Origin stories are important. Consider Linh’s. She had a noteworthy start to her relationship with whisky: “I woke up one morning and the first thought that came to my mind was that I should use whisky as a muse to write poetry. It was such a random thought, so I figured why not.” This random thought would spur her to quit her job, travel to Scotland, work her way up through a new industry, and eventually place her in a position to speak with me. As for that poetry project: “Long story short – after studying for a whole year, there was no poem and I gained quite a bit of weight.”

Torii and Taketsuru ran into their own versions of altered expectations about a century ago, yet their epic still provides the backbone for two of the most popular Japanese distilleries.

If you have been wondering why the lighter, sweeter and subtler Japanese whiskies have found themselves ensconced in conversations about Scotch, blame Taketsuru. Growing up with plans to take over the family sake business, Taketsuru trained as a chemist before becoming the first Japanese student of whisky-making in Scotland in 1918.

whiskyart1Many years earlier, a young Shinjiro Torii, apprentice for a liquor importer, opened his own wine shop, where he met with the difficulty of selling foreign wines to Japanese palates. Ever innovative, Torii began crafting a wine meant for his people. This became Akadama Sweet Wine, released in 1907 along with a racy ad that gained its own level of notoriety.

You might be able to guess what came next — a young Torii, beaming from his success with Akadama, was seeking new conquests when he met a down-trodden Taketsuru, back in Japan, where his benefactor only wanted to produce mass-appeal, cheaply made liquors. And the partnership that launched Yamazaki distillery in 1923 began.

In 1929, Yamazaki released Suntory Shirofuda, the first and last whisky from the partnership, proving to Torii that he had the same problem with his whisky that he had with his foreign wines — a generally confused Japanese populace. This may or may not have led to a clash of opinions between the two great men; with a Scottish purist and a Japanese entrepreneur, it’s hard to assume otherwise. In 1934, on his own, Taketsuru began a new distillery, which we know today as Nikka.

Linh confirms: “There’s a deep tie between Suntory and Nikka. There’s this kind of beef. I like to tell people it’s the Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. of Japanese whiskies.”

The intricate relationship of a custom spirit for Japan based on Scottish roots proves somewhat counter to the way the media portrayed a new rivalry. Headlines such as — Humiliation for Scotland as Japan’s Whisky is Named ‘Best in World’ — quickly took over the Internet conversation.

whiskyart6I ask Linh about this framing of Japanese whisky’s popularity as an anti-Scottish narrative or one of innovation over tradition, and it appears that culture can dictate practice.

Regarding Japan: “There’s that philosophy of striving for perfection without ever achieving it. They’re all about being innovative and changing the recipes whenever they feel like it. They can be very particular and very precise in terms of the distillation process and extracting certain flavor profiles. At the same time, there’s this idea of letting nature change its course. It builds such a fascinating dichotomy.”

Regarding Scotland: “It’s such an old culture to begin with. There’s that sense of pride. Also, they’re very practical. There are not a lot of jobs and not a lot of opportunities there, so the idea of (creativity) just for fun doesn’t click with them. There has to be a rhyme and reason. They will (embrace) you being creative, but it has to be practical.”

Some of this conversation may have less to do with which culture produces a better spirit and more with the change in whisky standards in general.

Linh Do 2

Linh Do has a unique way to roll out the barrel.

Linh explains. “The climate is different in Japan than it is in Scotland and Ireland,” she says. “Kentucky, India, Tasmania and Taiwan – they’re allowed to release their stuff at a younger age because (their whiskies are) soaking up the wood so fast. The angels’ share, the evaporation, is maybe 11 to 14 percent per year in a barrel vs. in Scotland, where it would be 1 or 2 percent. When you’re exposed to these hot climates the alcohol expands into barrels, and during the wintertime, like in Kentucky, there’s this acceleration of the maturation process.”

These climate influences on maturation change the game for what has been an age-old tradition of age statements – those proclamations of a 12- or 18-year-old whisky that I used to tell myself what I could or could not afford. Age statements became heavy on my radar after I read that Suntory and Nikka’s solution to their dwindling stocks has been to produce and release NAS (non-age-statement) whiskies. I wanted to know if this was a gimmick, a way to cheat us. I wanted to know if age really does matter.

whiskyart5“I’ve never heard brands say older is better,” Linh tells me. “I remain optimistic and thoroughly enjoy some of the NAS releases, like Highland Park Dark Origins.” Furthermore, “what companies have done is they remove the age statement, but they bump up the proof, so I feel like there’s still that richness there.” Even the Scots, so famous for their traditionalism, have begun to pull back on their stance of age statements.

So what does Japanese whisky have, and not have, to offer in comparison to other whisky on the market? Linh, with the literary heart that took her down this path, says: “In terms of what I’ve seen in America– Yamazaki 18 or 25, Hibiki 21, those guys are great. They’re light but they’re still complex. It is kind of like reading E.E. Cummings. There are not a lot of words on the page, but then you have to explore the space and indentation. That’s what Japanese whiskies are.

“But for me, in terms of the bold stuff, it’s kind of like being able to listen to Tupac and then reading Thomas Pynchon and Ralph Ellison all in one. There’s a lot going on.”

Like me, Linh craves those strong, complex, “a lot going on” whiskies. But, as sales and talk have been telling us, there seems to be a market for the subtle, the light and the sweet.

whiskyart2“I almost feel like people are searching for something else,” Linh says. “They like Japanese whiskies because they tend to be light, so at the bar what I really love doing is giving people blind tastings. What they are shocked by is that some of their favorite whiskies tend to be Irish. No one thinks about them yet.”

So if you are already tired of the taste race for these talked-up whiskies, reach for the less- conspicuous imports. I am enthralled by Chichibu Distillery for its aspirations and lore – an article for another day. Linh sees greener pastures. I wager, with our whisky horizons expanding and our traditions fluctuating, we might find our own palettes staking their claim. And I can raise a toast to that.

A special thanks to Linh Do, Katie K. at Hi-Time Wine Cellars and Brent and David Wallace for preserving the camaraderie of the whisky community.


Janne BarklisJanne Barklis has a background in writing and experience both on and off stage, and is passionate about coupling her interests in meaningful storytelling and multimedia aesthetics. You can see one of her first endeavors of writing, travel, photography, and performance in the multimedia exhibit Short Spine at www.jannebarklis.com. Her most current project is preparing for a six week jaunt through Eastern Europe where she plans to eat well, drink abundantly, and converse with eccentric strangers.

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