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On a Japanese Whiskey Tour, Small Batches and Bagpipes

The New York Times logoThe New York Times 15/12/2016 KEN BELSON
Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery in Osaka Prefecture. © Ko Sasaki for The New York Times Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery in Osaka Prefecture. One of the many discoveries I made on my first night in Japan nearly 30 years ago were the vending machines that sold beer. As I walked to my new apartment just hours after landing in Tokyo, I found a machine stocked with different sizes of cans and brands. It was a eureka moment.

Then I saw something more bewildering: a small bottle of whiskey. I was impressed that it was sold in a vending machine but skeptical that it was any good. In a fit of caution, I opted for a few beers.

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Over the next dozen years that I lived in Tokyo, when I saw Japanese whiskey, it was almost always in pubs where businessmen diluted it with water or ice to make it easier to drink. Back then, domestic whiskey was considered inferior to the Scottish original. One Japanese friend was so smitten with the Glenlivet I gave him he kept the bottle long after he emptied it.

It was only after moving back to the United States in 2004 that I realized that I had missed the emergence of Japan’s whiskey boom. My first hint should have been the 2003 movie “Lost in Translation,” in which Bill Murray cradles a glass of Suntory while filming a commercial.

Several years later, my brother started drinking Japanese whiskey. Intrigued, I asked my friend Bill Bloch, who writes for the blog The Malt Impostor, what I had been missing. A lot, it turned out.

Over the last 20 years or so, Suntory and Nikka, Japan’s other large distiller, had begun producing award-winning single malts that connoisseurs now covet. The four-figure prices for bottles of some of them confirmed how late I was to the party.

So this spring, on a trip to Tokyo, my wife and I decided to see what the fuss was about, taking side trips to distilleries owned by three of the best-regarded makers, Nikka, Chichibu and Suntory.

To prepare, I read the blog Nonjatta about whiskey in Japan and sampled Yoichi, Hakushu and a few other whiskeys. I watched the serialized television drama “Massan,” which chronicles the life of Masataka Taketsuru, the godfather of Japanese whiskey.

Taketsuru was the scion of an old sake brewing family who traveled to Scotland in 1918 to learn how to make whiskey and returned in 1920 with a Scottish bride.

Bottled whiskey at Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. © Ko Sasaki for The New York Times Bottled whiskey at Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. Taketsuru went to work for Shinjiro Torii, the founder of what would become Suntory. With Taketsuru’s technical know-how and Torii’s business savvy, they opened a distillery in 1924 in Mishima-gun, about halfway between Osaka and Kyoto. After some early hiccups, they introduced whiskey to the masses.

But Taketsuru wanted to make whiskey in a place that approximated Scotland. So in 1934, he and three investors opened a rival distillery that became Nikka, in Yoichi, on the northern island of Hokkaido.

Taketsuru’s central role in the birth of Japanese whiskey made Yoichi a logical place to start our tour. We found a package plan that included round-trip tickets on ANA and a night in a Western-style hotel in Sapporo for less than $300 per person.

After the 90-minute flight to Sapporo, we caught the Airport Express train to the city center and walked a few minutes to our hotel. The rooms were small, tidy and included breakfast.

The next morning, we took a two-car train that hugged the coastline to Yoichi. We quickly saw why Taketsuru set up shop here. The town is surrounded by hills on three sides and faces the Sea of Japan, and the salt air and fresh water evoke Scotland.

Nikka seemed to be about the only reason tourists stopped there. Thanks to “Massan,” about 900,000 people visited the distillery last year, remarkable for a town of 20,000.

Outside the station, we saw the gray brick walls of the distillery a few blocks away on Rita Road, named in honor of Taketsuru’s wife, Rita Cowan Taketsuru. Bagpipe music blared over the loud speakers in town.

At the gate, two receptionists in red-and-black tartan outfits greeted us. The free guided tours were only in Japanese, but plenty of tourists wandered around, English pamphlets in hand. Busloads of schoolchildren, Chinese tourists and groups of Japanese senior citizens paraded past the buildings and raided the gift shop.

We were lucky to be taken around by Naoki Tomoyoshi, an award-winning bartender who is now the chief of international sales and marketing.

Mr. Tomoyoshi explained that there is roughly a 10-year lag between production and demand for good whiskey, and during Japan’s go-go years in the 1980s, Nikka cranked up production to meet demand. As the economy slowed, Nikka drew down its inventory. Now that demand has rebounded, Nikka is playing catch-up.

“The impact of ‘Massan’ has been very positive, which can sometimes be a negative in the whiskey business,” Mr. Tomoyoshi said. “Whiskey doesn’t happen in two weeks like beer.”

To get whiskeys to market faster, Nikka is no longer releasing Yoichi and Miyagikyo, two of its signature whiskeys, with age statements of, say, 12 or 17 years.

The urgency was not apparent at the stately distillery, where you could almost imagine old man Taketsuru wandering around mulling his next creation. The S-shaped trail that bisected the grounds, my wife thought, was a metaphor for the long and winding journey that it takes to make whiskey.

A fermentation tank at Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. © Ko Sasaki for The New York Times A fermentation tank at Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. The highlight was the distillation room, where the pot stills were heated with coal, rarely used elsewhere because of environmental restrictions. Like a scene out of the Industrial Age, workers in factory smocks shoveled piles of coal into the furnace beneath the pot stills every few minutes.

Mr. Tomoyoshi said that using coal to maintain a temperature of between 1,472 and 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit was less precise than more easily controlled sources of heat, but the uneven temperatures created more unpredictable flavors as a result.

Nearby was the Taketsurus’s modest wooden home. We peeked at the kitchen and the living room, which looked as if little had changed since the 1950s, when the couple lived there. (Rita died in 1961, Taketsuru in 1979.) Taketsuru drank only in a room with the traditional tatami mats, and his flask was still there.

Given how instrumental Taketsuru was to Nikka and Suntory, it was disappointing that there was no mention in the Nikka museum that he worked elsewhere.

The corporate dispute seemed trivial when a few days later we visited Ichiro Akuto, the founder of the Chichibu distillery in Chichibu, a city about two hours by train and taxi from Tokyo. The distillery is everything Nikka and Suntory are not: Less than a decade old, it is tiny by comparison. Without the expectations of an established brand, Mr. Akuto is freer to experiment, and in a short time he has created some of the most sought-after Japanese whiskey.

Born into a 350-year-old sake brewing family, Mr. Akuto worked for Suntory before joining the whiskey distillery that his grandfather started in 1946. After sales faltered, his father sold the company.

Mr. Akuto, though, acquired the 400 casks in inventory and started his own company, Venture Whisky. (Many Japanese distillers use the Scottish spelling of whiskey, without the e.) To buy time, he bottled his father’s whiskey and went bar to bar in the Tokyo area to win over bartenders.

It took Mr. Akuto two years to sell his first 600 bottles. But after he started winning awards, his whiskeys shot up in price. During our visit, we could see why. He makes everything in small batches with an obsessive attention to detail, and adds some interesting twists, like a fermentation tank called a washback made of mizunara oak, a wood indigenous to Japan that is typically used for casks.

One of Mr. Akuto’s novel ideas was to blend his father’s inventory with his new whiskeys. I fell in love with one named, aptly, Double Distilleries, which was sweet and sharp at once. I had to restrain myself from finishing the samples that were left out for us to taste and was crushed to learn that Mr. Akuto lacked a license to sell retail, so I left empty-handed.

It wasn’t hard to root for Mr. Akuto. In our hourlong talk, he was knowledgeable but modest, and said his goal was not to beat Nikka or Suntory, or even to earn a lot of money.

“As for my dream or motivation, I want to drink 30-year-old whiskey,” he said. “It will take 22 more years. If I can drink it, I think I’ll die having lived a good life.”

We didn’t expect such simplicity on the last leg of our tour to Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery.

We rode the bullet train to Kyoto and changed to a local train heading to Osaka. About 20 minutes later we got off at Yamazaki Station and walked 10 minutes to the distillery, the smell of malted barley in the air.

The spot is ideal because of the easy access to Kyoto and Osaka, and because the Katsura, Kizu and Uji Rivers meet nearby and provide fresh water. These days, a visit to the distillery is as much as about the company’s history as it is the ingredients that go into the whiskeys.

As in Yoichi, the cult of the founder was ever-present. We saw busts of Torii and his adopted son and successor, Keizo Saji, who pushed the company to develop premium whiskey. The museum made no mention of Taketsuru, but had a fascinating collection of bottles, labels and advertisements.

Ichiro Akuto, Chichibu’s founder. © Ko Sasaki for The New York Times Ichiro Akuto, Chichibu’s founder. Then Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory’s chief blender, took us around the distillery, which dwarfed anything we saw in Yoichi and Chichibu. There were, for instance, five pairs of pot stills in the distillation room and about a million casks of whiskey, including a Cádiz sherry cask dating back to 1924. The inventory is so vast that Mr. Fukuyo’s team can only test a fraction of the enormous stock each year.

The real fun was talking to Mr. Fukuyo about his job. He sometimes tastes dozens of samples a day, and has to translate his impressions to a team of scientists who adjust batches accordingly. He avoids broiled fish, coffee and other foods that interfere with his taste buds.

The son of a police detective, Mr. Fukuyo looked like an engineer in his white factory jacket with maroon trim. But he explained that making whiskey is a guessing game. No one, he said, knows what consumers will want in 10 or 20 years, and even if he or she did, the whiskey now aging will change depending on the weather, the casks and other factors that are difficult to control.

Mr. Fukuyo quoted his predecessor, who likened the process to the career of a famous Japanese singer, Harumi Miyako. She still sings the same songs as she always did, sounding slightly different over the years, he said. “But the same person is singing, so it’s the same. It’s like a Zen question and answer.”

At the end of the tour, Mr. Fukuyo showed us four whiskeys that would be mixed with others to make new creations. The lightest was aged in American oak and reminded me of bourbon. The second sample was darker and aged in mizunara oak, which gave it a spicy aftertaste. Then we tasted a darker whiskey aged in Spanish oak that gave off a heavy hint of fruit. The last one was the smokiest and tasted a bit medicinal. We poured a splash of water in each glass and marveled at the new fragrances that arose.

On our last night in Tokyo, we ate at a restaurant with a view in the distance of the Park Hyatt Hotel, where much of “Lost in Translation” was filmed. After dinner, we went there by cab, and took an elevator to the New York Grill on the 52nd floor, where Mr. Murray had drinks in the movie.

We ordered whiskey samplers that included glasses of Miyagikyo and Yoichi from Nikka and glasses of 12-year-old Hakushu and 12-year-old Yamazaki from Suntory. In years past, I would have fumbled for the vocabulary to describe them. Now, I could identify the hint of sea salt in the Yoichi and the aroma of fruit and mizunara oak in the Yamazaki. Whiskey — or at least the Japanese variety — was no longer lost in translation.

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