The master blender on how new world whiskies are challenging Scotch’s status quo.
It’s not every day that you wake up, look out of your hotel window and see a rollercoaster opposite, and to the left a baseball stadium. There again, having a theme park, spa, stadium and hotel all together in the city centre seems a perfectly normal and rational thing for Tokyo. Things are done differently here.
The stadium’s conference centre was the venue for this year’s Tokyo International Bar Show (TIBS), which itself morphed out of Whisky Live six years ago to embrace a new, wider-ranging Japanese bar culture. The geek fest of the whisky years has receded significantly, replaced by a more egalitarian (and noisy) approach.
Nothing shows how far and how fast the Japanese bar scene is moving than the gin wars that broke out at the event. The Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi and a new variant KiNoTea (with added – and crazily expensive – tea from Uji), while Nikka weighed in with its new Coffey Gin and Vodka, made at Miyagikyo. Not to be outdone, Suntory chose the event to launch its new gin, Roku.
KiNoBi gin: Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi gin at the show
All are based on a mix of traditional botanicals with added Japanese elements: sansho pepper, red shiso, bamboo, hinoki, yuzu, kinome and gyokuro tea for KiNoBi. Coffey Gin combines a traditional botanical mix with distillates of sansho and a Japanese citrus mix of yuzu, kabishu, amanatsu (and apple); while Suntory adds sansho, yuzu, gyokuro, matcha, sakura leaf and blossom to its traditional base. When Hombo’s earthier WaBi (shell ginger, yuzu, gyukuro) is stirred in, you can see how Japanese gin has gone from nothing to a category – almost overnight.
The key to all of these is the use of those local botanicals – and with such a diverse range of citrus alone, not to mention herbs and tea, this is a gin-maker’s paradise. They are there to give the gins identity and set them apart from the standard London Dry base.
Japan is not alone. Northumberland’s Hepple uses botanicals grown on its estate – including juniper and Douglas fir, while the biosphere gin of Dyfi explores Welsh botanicals in a similar way to Norway’s Vidda, or the approach taken by California’s St George’s Terroir.
There was an echo of this thinking in the chat I moderated between three of Japan’s newer whisky distilleries: Chichibu, Mars Shinshu and White Oak. All of the distillers agreed that they were still looking for their character, itself an understanding of the long-term nature of whisky. While gins can be brought to market (relatively) quickly, whisky makers have to sit and wait to see how the work done at new make stage then matures.
Mars is looking at yeasts and roasts of barley; White Oak has completely re-evaluated its whisky making to try to make a lighter, and more gentle, style; while even Chichibu is still experimenting and focusing ever more heavily on the local: peat, barley – even wood – but, as brand ambassador Yumi Yoshikawa pointed out: ‘Only if it gives us quality. Local doesn’t automatically mean better.’
New spirits: Nikka’s new Coffey Gin and Vodka are made at Miyagikyo
This approach is echoed at newer builds such as Akkeshi on Hokkaido’s east coast, which aims to produce a 100% Akkeshi single malt whisky using local barley, peat and mizunara wood from local forests. Japanese barley is the ultimate aim for Shizuoka along with double, and partial triple, distillation. The climate is the main difference for Hombo’s new Tsunuki distillery in the southern city of Kagoshima, where the ambient temperature will have a significant impact on maturation. The local suddenly increases in its importance, but why is that unusual?
While using local botanicals may seem logical for gin, in reality this is a spirit which sprang from the spice trade and has always been internationalist in approach. Whisky, however, started as a localised spirit whose ties have been slowly loosened – or, perhaps, overlooked. Even those apparently rootless creations, blends, were originally crafted to suit the tastes of their respective markets – the Glasgow palate being very different (and, inevitably, superior) to those of Edinburgh or London.
Now those links with the immediate environment are being re-established. We are seeing it around the world and, while the ‘grain to glass’ tagline is often overused, there are indications that the shift is under way in Scotland as well. All single malt distilleries reflect their place – part of their individuality comes from how the template was devised hundreds of years ago, expertise, the availability of ingredients and their flavours, all the way down to the lactobacillus unique to that place. The local subtly guides character in the right direction.
Finding character is as much about listening to those whisperings as it is about imposing a formula. The local is not about copying, or trying to force the issue (such as using tiny casks again). It is about taking your time, looking, tasting, reading and listening. Without having this understanding, you will struggle in tomorrow’s whisky world.
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