Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.
One of Japan's leading authorities on whisky, Mamoru Tsuchiya has dedicated much of his adult life to sampling the finest spirits the country has to offer. He is also the editor of a magazine dedicated to the topic.
February 27, 2018
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Name an outstanding Japanese drink. What's the first thing that comes to mind? It might be sake rice wine, or creamy bitter-sweet matcha green tea, or even one of the many brands of Japanese beer that have developed a global following in recent years. But for those in the know, whisky just might figure in this conversation.
Almost a century ago, Masataka Taketsuru searched Japan for a location whose climate was as close as possible to the Scottish Highlands, and eventually chose Yoichi in Hokkaido.
Whisky? Surely the malt variety is a Scottish drink? Or when it comes to bourbon, one tends to think of America’s southern states. But as we discovered in this week’s edition of Japanology Plus, premium Japanese whiskies have been ranked among the world's best almost every year over the last decade.
How did this happen? It is now over 30 years since Japan developed a reputation for its knack of imitating and improving upon the best of foreign technology. But in the world of food and drink, while there is admittedly no shortage of Japanese bakers, baristas, and pizzaiolos who have traveled abroad to fully master the essential secrets of their chosen craft, the abiding image of this country's interpretations of overseas cuisine is of yoshoku, a word combining the characters for "the West" and "food" to reflect a Japanese take on Western food. The process of filtering classics from overseas through the prism of Japanese tastes and throwing in a range of native ingredients gives rise to hybrid dishes, such as naporitan pasta, omuraisu, and Japanese curry.
In fact, Japan’s whisky heritage goes back almost 100 years to the 1920s. In its earliest days, the two titans of local distilling embarked upon the rather distinct paths of authenticity versus adaptation.
This facility in Hokkaido is the only coal-fired whisky distillery in the world.
Masataka Taketsuru was a young Japanese chemist who traveled to Scotland to study medicine at Glasgow University, but in nearby Campbeltown, he also absorbed the intricacies of whisky distilling. He lodged with a local family, the Cowans, and fell in love with their daughter Rita, whom he married and brought back to Japan.
In 1929, several years after his return, Taketsuru decided to found a distillery. He searched Japan for a location that mirrored as closely as possible the conditions in the Scottish highlands, the home of whisky, eventually settling on the northern climes of Yoichi, Hokkaido. He was rigorous in his efforts to replicate the taste of bona fide Scotch malt whisky, and almost a century later, the brand he established is one of the twin giants of Japanese whisky. The remarkable story of Masataka and Rita also reached a wider audience with the popular NHK morning drama Massan (an affectionate abbreviation of Masataka).
What of the rival brand that dominates the whisky landscape of Japan (a healthy number of smaller independent distilleries notwithstanding)? Shinjiro Torii had established his own distillery, Japan's first, in Yamazaki, between Osaka and Kyoto, in 1923 with Taketsuru's expert assistance. But in contrast to his mentor, and later competitor, Torii set about smoothing away the smokiness of genuine Scotch whisky to create a spirit to better match the preferences of the Japanese.
Raw spirits are aged in wooden casks, sometimes for over 30 years.
In some ways, perhaps it is such rivalries that have driven the amazing rise of Japanese whiskies. The relatively small number of distilleries in Japan, and the absence of a system for sharing raw spirit between makers who each specialize in a single variety (as happens in Scotland), has forced this country’s producers to each focus on producing a diversity of raw spirits using malted barley and other grains. This gives the maker self-sufficiency when it comes to blending beverages with a stable flavor profile, and spurs them on to refine their craft in whatever way they can to secure a competitive advantage.
With more distilleries opening up, buoyed by the growing popularity of Japanese whisky, we are sure to see fascinating new developments. In the words of this week’s expert, Mamoru Tsuchiya: “What's interesting about whisky is that it's like a human being. Think of the way it grows and changes over time. It changes over the period of time it spends in the cask... It's like a human life.”
Peter examines some examples of Japan's whisky craft expertise.
Tadashi Sakuma is chief blender at the Yoichi distillery.
Matt learns a new way to make whisky on the rocks.
Chief blender at the major whisky distillery founded by Masataka Taketsuru.
A veteran at the major distillery founded by Shinjiro Torii, where he became chief blender emeritus in 2014.
An "ice-sphere" sculptor who runs a bar in Tokyo that is dedicated to whisky mixology.
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