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Innovation and identity

  • I’m just back from Japan, where the whisky category appears to have been given another boost in sales.

    The highball craze may have slowed slightly, but continues to bring new drinkers into whisky – even if not all of them know that a ‘Highball’ is a whisky drink. Bridging that gap remains an important task.

    The category’s biggest kick has been given by Massan, the daily morning soap opera on the life of Masataka Taketsuru, which ran from September 2014 until March this year.

    Yes, a whisky-related soap. Neighbours with drams. It has, seemingly, so captured the imagination of the public that it has directly boosted sales. Could that happen here? I doubt it.

    Massan could even be a further factor in the ongoing squeeze on stock, one topic which was aired at a panel discussion I chaired with four Japanese chief blenders: Shinji Fukuyo (Suntory), Tadashi Sakuma (Nikka), Ichiro Akuto (Venture Whisky/Chichibu) and Jota Tanaka (Kirin/Gotemba).

    It used to be that the companies were as reluctant to share a stage as they were to share their whiskies. Things have changed. They laughed with each other, nodded in agreement, complimented each other.

    It’s a reflection of the new openness which exists within the Japanese industry. What would once have been considered secrets are now freely shared.

    Maybe it is confidence that their competitors won’t steal techniques, that they now realise that the Suntory way is different to that of Nikka, or Kirin, or Chichibu. 

    One of the questions was whether they thought Japan could be behind the ball when equilibrium between stock and demand returned.

    ‘No,’ was the polite answer, ‘because [and I paraphrase] we continue to innovate, believe that quality is paramount, and want to further define and fine-tune what it is to be a Japanese whisky.’

    More specifics emerged in a further discussion with Fukoyo which looked at Suntory’s new ‘The Chita’ grain.

    ‘We had always made three styles of grain at Chita,’ he explained, ‘but the grain whiskies we use for the blends couldn’t be the same as we needed for a single grain. It was… boring.’

    I’ve tasted the Chita grains and they’re not… but I suppose that also proves a point.

    So, he has used the three styles of grain, but aged in a mix of woods including ex-wine casks, and new (fresh) European oak casks.

    Hakushu distillery

    What is our whisky?: Hakushu’s small grain plant is unafraid of experimentation

    Fukoyo then went on to outline what was happening at the small grain plant at Hakushu where he has overseen runs of malted barley, wheat and rye, and all at different strengths.

    ‘We always distilled to 94%,’ he said. ‘Then we asked why and realised it was because that’s what the Scots did.

    ‘So now we are distilling at different strengths, using those different grains, mashbills and woods to see what Japanese grain whisky could be.’

    This willingness to ask: ‘What is our whisky?’ is also seen in the creation of Irish Distillers’ new experimental distillery at Midleton, which initially will be looking at 19th century recipes.

    The reason? They exist, they have been forgotten, they could shed light on Irish whiskey, they could help widen the category.

    It all seems so... sensible. Now, I know that there are wild things being trialled in Scotland, but so far there is no evidence of any of it appearing. Keeping these developments behind the curtains simply reinforces the (incorrect) belief that Scotch’s template is fixed.

    Neither Suntory nor IDL is exactly small. Both are asking, openly: ‘Where do we go now? What else can we learn?’

    Realising that they couldn’t run experimental batches through their existing plants because the batches would be too large, they simply built smaller sites. 

    Hopefully the Scottish distillers working on similar schemes will show what they have been working on, but – and here my impatient journalist’s brain takes over – how will they commercialise these small batches?

    Split an existing (small) distillery’s production schedule? Build a small site to run them through? Buy a ‘craft’ distiller and use it as their experimental arm – the model taken by the big American brewers?

    As it stands, there are other whisky categories that seem to be more nimble, and are able to see opportunities. They are the ones who come across as wanting to move whisky ever onwards without losing their identity.

    It makes Scotch seem as if it is being left behind. Time, I suspect, to throw open those curtains.

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