Japan: Day 4 – The Road Back to Tokyo

We boarded the bullet train at Sendai station this morning, eagerly anticipating the upcoming views through the window. Getting the chance to see a city from afar is much different than the view from the middle. Sendai was one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami in 2012, and there are placards at the airport showing where the water level reached during the flood. Since then, however, it appears the city has persevered. We were all very impressed with Sendai; both with the aesthetics and the friendliness of the citizens. I would definitely go back again on vacation if I had time.

Tokyo, from the little I've seen so far, is one of the most awe-inspiring cities I've ever visited. There are busy streets full of storefronts, and alleyways full of more storefronts intersecting those streets. It's like the compactness of New York, with the sprawl of Los Angeles, but bigger, fuller, and even more-populated. And you can't read anything, or recognize exactly what anything is. I think I could spend an entire year here and barely scratch the surface.

As if the busy streets full of shopping weren't enough, you've got train stations and subway stops bursting with more options. It seems all the best spots are located underground as part of the transit system. Hasegawa Liquors, one of Tokyo's most-revered whisky stores, is tucked away beneath the bustling city streets; part of a series of small, garage-style bodegas.

And don't forget the malls! Tokyo goes a lot further up than down. I'm still working on the subterranean selection. I can't even imagine what awaits over my head.

-David Driscoll


Japan: Day 3 – Miyagikyo

We touched down in Sendai, hopped on our Anchor bus, and immediately began driving into the mountains towards the Miyagikyo distillery. After about twenty minutes, the hills began transitioning from urban dwellings and pine trees, into clear fall colors and country simplicity. Miyagikyo is located in an entirely different terrain than the Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido, which is something Taketsuru originally wanted (a contrast to his existing facility), yet it still follows the same guidelines for quality whisky production in Japan: a cold Scottish-style climate with incredibly pure water close by.

While seeking out those very important criteria in the late-1960s, Taketsuru came across this mountain stream in the Miyagikyo Prefecture; a water so clean and crisp that he was able to drink it right from the river bank. He famously kneeled down, put his hand in the water, and brought the cold, refreshing liquid to his lips. He asked an assistant what the name of the river was: Nikkawa. The name of his company was already engrained into the current; it was a sign that his next distillery should be built in that very spot.

Using red bricks to create a striking contrast against the green forestation of the mountains, Taketsuru established Miyagikyo distillery in 1969 and immediately began creating a completely different style of whisky to increase the versatility of his blended expressions. 

Whereas the Yoichi stills were wide-necked with descending lyne arms, the pots at Miyagikyo were to be more narrow with ascending lyne arms that allow only the lighter, less-heavy alcohols to escape before condensing the vapor back into a liquid. Powered by steam rather than coal fire, the result is a graceful, more feminine style of single malt whisky. The perfect contrast to Yoichi's masculine, full-bodied weight.

Taketsuru had purchased a Coffey column still from Scotland in 1963, and upon establishing the Miyagikyo distillery he had it moved from a northern Nikka site to his new mountain location. Today there are two Coffey stills operating side-by-side, feeding a continuous cold stream of wort into the yellow, S-shaped pipes, which carry the liquid through the rising vapors; both condensing the alcohol as it rises, and heating the wort with the temperature of the steam. In 2013, Nikka launched a pure Coffey still grain whisky and it has quickly become one of my all-time favorite expressions. Using a mashbill of mostly corn, the whisky is dangerously drinkable and the maturation in ex-Bourbon barrels casts a soft, mellow flavor onto the spirit. It's basically Japanese Bourbon, but don't tell Scotch drinkers that.

In order to obtain access to the parts of the distillery unavailable to most visitors, we had to suit up head-to-toe in a Nikka work suit: shoes, pants, belt, windbreaker, and helmet. 

And out we marched, one-by-one, across the Miyagikyo campus and towards the first stop on our tour.

Our guide led us to the end of the compound, unlocked a gate, and escorted us down to the bank of the Nikkawa River where, of course, we were allowed to recreate Taketsuru's initial taste of the pure mountain water.

Next, a peek at the towering Coffey stills that stretch up several stories, through grated metal platforms, as high as the eye can see.

While the Coffey stills are tall, the Miyagikyo pot stills are nothing to sneeze at either. They're huge! Naoki said they were once the biggest in Japan and may still be. He wasn't sure if Suntory or another rival company had since installed larger ones.

Like Yoichi, there is a cooperage on site, albeit a much more modern and expansive one. 

We had an amazing visit at the Miyagikyo distillery, complete with our own blending exercise where we were given the raw components of each whisky to use in our own creations. At the end of a long day, however, we couldn't wait to get to our hotel. Hotel bars in Japan are incredible and are often the standard in the industry. The Sendai Metropolitan bar was no exception. First class service; top quality drinks.

We sat at the counter for more than an hour, talking about our day and what we had experienced. It was a lot to take in. We've done so much, so quickly, with little time for reflection. Getting the chance to simply sit and unwind was a treat.

Soon it was time to head back out, though: deep into the bright lights of the Sendai evening. We grabbed some Japanese tapas, chugged a few cold Asahis, and eventually ended up at a nearby Karaoke room where we screamed our voices hoarse until late into the night. In 2004, I lived with a group of Japanese girls while studying in Germany and learned a bunch of trendy Japanese rock songs by sheer repetition. I don't know what any of the words mean, but I still remember what they are. Of course, those very songs were available for Karaoke, and, of course, I wanted to shock the shit out of everyone by singing one of them. 

Naoki about fell over. "How in the hell do you know the words to that song?!" he screamed. It was a great time, to say the least.

We're off to Tokyo today by bullet train. That should be quite an experience.

-David Driscoll


Japan: Day 3 – Ponderings

Circling back around to my original post before leaving, it’s not just consumers who are constantly on the hunt for shiny, new, limited editions. Even retailers like myself and the boys from Anchor have been asking our friends in Taiwan and Japan about single cask options, or the possibility of a new exclusive expression for our businesses. Dennis Carr, the VP of sales for Anchor, told his staff at dinner in Taipei, however: “Hey guys, sell what you have first.” Some of us can’t help but ask though. We’re all feeding the fires of our own inherent enthusiasm. Knowing there’s yet another whisky out there to experience is partly what drives our passion, which I think is healthy once you've already tried what's available. Some folks, however, are asking me about the potential for new Nikka whiskies in the U.S. before they’ve even tried the Pure Malts, the Miyagikyo 12, or the Yoichi 15. Just this morning, I’ve already received fifty emails about Jim Murray’s new “Whisky of the Year”, the Yamazaki Sherry Cask, from customers hoping to score a bottle (NOTE: it’s not available in the U.S. and it’s not going to be anytime soon). How many of those people have tried just the basic Suntory expressions? Why aren’t we ever interested in what we already have?

While it may seem beneficial to get that kind of press, I have to imagine that getting the prestigious “Best Whisky in the World” title is more of a curse than a blessing; if you’re really into whisky, that is. If I had a whisky company I would pay magazines and critics not to review my products, mainly because I know first-hand what it’s like to deal with that group of cherry pickers. It’s like having your new pop song hit number one on the charts, then going on tour to perform for people who only came to listen to that one hit. “Just play ‘Freebird!’ Get to ‘Freebird’, man, and make it sound like it does on the album!”  You might have an entire record’s worth of great music, but wherever you go people are going to remember you for that one thing. It’s like when Andy Kaufman tried to do stand-up comedy and everyone in the audience just wanted him to say, “Thank you very much,” like his character on SNL. Whisky is moving into that same sphere of pop culture phenomena. A larger population of people is being exposed to greater whisky information and, more than ever, that populous is interested in hype. That’s not a criticism; it’s just reality. I’m no different than these guys in the way I live certain aspects of my life. I want to be relevant, as well. I want to know what’s going on generally in a number of different pop culture genres, and I read magazines, websites, and various articles to learn about what’s happening. If I were to read about some hot new ramen shop on the Peninsula, I’d probably line-up with the rest of the general public, while the hardcore ramen geeks rolled their eyes at me in disdain.

We went out for cocktails in Sapporo last night after dinner and Naoki explained to us the rigorous training that it takes to be a serious bartender in Japan. Speaking of ramen, I don’t know how many of you have seem the film “The Ramen Girl” with the late Brittany Murphy (it’s nothing great, but it’s available to stream on Netflix), but what Naoki described is similar to what her character experiences while trying to work for a ramen shop in Tokyo. The owner must break her down completely and teach her humility and respect before allowing her to do the one thing she actually wants to do: make ramen. Naoki was once a bartender in Tokyo and, while we sipped Sidecars in a smoky Sapporo lounge, he talked about starting out. Most of what he did in the beginning involved washing dishes, polishing the jiggers and shakers, cleaning the bar until it was spotless, and sweeping up after hours. He was forced to do that for months before he was even allowed to touch any of the bottles. When he finally was asked to mix a drink for the owner of the bar, his boss wouldn’t even take a sip until the fifth time Naoki eventually made him one. Instead he would ask: “Exactly how many ice cubes did you use?” or “Can you tell me the production methods of the apple brandy in this drink?” 

“I’m sorry, I don’t know,” Naoki would answer.

“Well, then I cannot taste your cockail,” the owner would say, before getting up and walking away.

There’s a level of complete respect for the bartending profession in Japan, completely unrelated to the “bar star” atmosphere we’ve created in the United States. In America, you’ve got a new generation of young people with huge chips on their shoulders hoping to become the next Jim Meehan or Thad Vogler; not because they love mixing drinks, but because it’s currently cool to be a “mixologist.” In 2008, when I first started learning about pre-Prohibition cocktails in San Francisco, you would go out and meet people like Erik Ellestad—understated guys with humility who were bartenders because they genuinely enjoyed the craft. Most had nothing but respect for both their cocktails and their clients. They would spend as much time filling your water and getting you napkins—the complete bartender experience—as they would making your next drink. Today, however, I see very little of that same modesty. Now it’s all about getting a book deal, or a brand ambassador job, or a keynote speaking role at Tales of the Cocktail. Now that it’s cool to be a bartender (or the idea of being a bartender), the profession is being flooded with young people who don’t want to start at the bottom; they’re ready for their fifteen minutes right now. Talk to tech companies in Silicon Valley and they’ll tell you the same thing about their new hires. Retailers, too. I’ve interviewed a number of young candidates for a job at K&L who showed little interest in working the sales floor or helping customers. They wanted to go right to the buying, traveling, and fancy industry dinners. “I don’t have to lift boxes, do I?” one famously asked. “I didn’t go to Berkeley to fetch will call orders all day,” is another amazing quip I once heard.

While I walked back to the hotel last night after round one, some of the guys stayed out late and hit up another whisky bar down the street. This morning they were wide-eyed and excited, telling stories of the owner: a fifty-five year old woman who loved whisky and loved being a bartender because it allowed her to share that passion with others. She started in the business thirty years ago and continues to operate the entire bar by herself today (can you imagine what it must have been like for a woman in Sapporo to start a whisky bar in the 1980s?). Her decades-long experience had made her a consumate professional. She spent more than an hour talking to the Anchor boys, grabbing whisky after whisky from her 300 bottle collection. Naoki told us he purposely avoids mentioning this place to others because he doesn’t want it spoiled by success. Even though it’s previously been a finalist for “Best Bar in Sapporo”, he never casts a vote in her direction because he knows an award like that would mean the end of an era. 

Awards and accolades often mean the death of authenticity. Once a person or product achieves a cult-like status, everything about them changes because the nature of their existence changes. Once you transition from genuinely-interested customers into trend-following, fly-by-night consumers, it’s impossible to maintain the same attention to detail. Here in Japan, however, where—unlike Taipei—the airports have practically zero brand name stores, and are instead brimming with unique, localized, purely-Japanese products (to the point that I don't even know what anything is), the atmosphere seems untainted by foreign interests. There’s a level of excitement about drinking here that isn’t formulaic or contrived; it’s based completely on passion and respect. You have to be passionate to be a bartender in Japan, otherwise why go through that grueling process? It's not about what bartending can lead to, but rather about a desire to do one's job well and professionally. That level of commitment and aptitude is rewarding for the people who genuinely care, and it sure helps to weed out the fickle ones.

-David Driscoll


Japan: Day 2 – Yoichi/Story of Nikka – Part III

The whisky distillery appears unassumingly as you drive through the working-class town of Yoichi. One minute you're looking at some basic homes and businesses, the next minute you see the compound as you drive around the bend in the road.

Beyond the birch trees and the drainage from the Yoichi river are the warehouses. We passed the distillery on arrival and entered through the back parking lot. There is a more formal entrance for pedestrians located right on the main Yoichi drag.

What's immediately striking about both Kavalan and Yoichi is that they're not just industrial whisky facilities. They're gigantic campuses with a multitude of different buildings and faculties.

With the fall colors abound and the groups of visitors walking to and fro, we could have been at Amherst College or some other quaint New England university. The quad was packed with tourists snapping photos and toting gift shop purchases. The popularity of the new "Massan & Ellie" soap opera has really increased the tourism at Yoichi, according to our guide Naoki. It's at the point now where Nikka has stopped selling single cask Yoichi special editions at the distillery due to an increase in bottle flippers. Folks from all around Asia have been buying up the limited releases and selling them on the secondary market in places like Taiwan and China, where the show has also been a success.

Since we were going on a special industry tour, we needed to wear Nikka hardhats—both to protect our heads and to distinguish ourselves from the other guests. Most people in Japan, however, aren't as large as our friend Maurice, so he needed a bit of assistance.

The first stop on our tour was the old kiln where Yoichi once used peat to dry their barley. Today most of their barley comes already peated from Scotland, but they still keep the kiln functioning to show guests how the process works. History and tradition are very important to Nikka, which is why even parts of the distillery no longer used have been kept in prestine condition. I would say a good half of the Yoichi campus is utilized as a museum rather than for actual whisky production.

One of the coolest and most amusing parts of Japan is the plethora of user-friendly diagrams to help those not fluent in the local dialect. I thought this basic overview of whisky production was outstanding: kiln, to mill, to mash (this building, as underlined), to fermenter, to still, to barrel, and finally to bottle. What more do you need to know?

The fermentation tanks are tall, vertical, two-story vessels that sometimes run a process of 96 hours for each batch. The important fact we quickly learned about Yoichi is that they don't make one basic single malt spirit. They make peated whisky, they make heavy whisky, they make lighter whisky, and they'll use a number of different processes to get to each flavor. Naoki told us that between various yeast strains, mash bills, fermentation times, distillation methods, maturation times, and barrel selections, Yoichi produces about 3,000 different types of single malt whisky. The permutations for blending those whiskies into different expressions are endless. That capability was important to Masataka Taketsuru.

Perhaps the most incredibly-curated part of the Yoichi tour, however, is the presentation of Taketsuru's old house; located in the center of the campus and kept with all his original furniture and decor. The entire dwelling is a fusion of Masataka's traditional Japanese culture with Rita's Scottish influence; hence the classic Japanese bedroom with modern Western glass windows.

After finishing our tour it was time to finally taste some whisky. Yoichi distillery has these wonderful 12 year old expressions named after specific flavor profiles to help highlight their capabilities as a producer. Along with "Peaty & Salty", there's "Woody & Vanillic" as well as "Sherried & Sweet".

In the Yoichi tasting bar you can finally wrap your lips around an even-larger array of expressions, like the decade marriages that utilize only barrels from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. It took us quite a while to leave this particular room.

We did eventually leave Yoichi distillery in complete awe; excited, enthused, and hungry—literally! That's when Naoki took us to a traditional Hokkaido seafood barbecue. Japan's northern island is known for having the country's freshest fare, so we needed to take advantage of our time here. Never have I had seafood that tasted this good, and most-likely never will I again. Between the grilled scallops last night and the incredible sushi display we had for lunch, I've been drunk on unbelievable fish flavor.

We're off to Sendai this morning and the Miyagikyo distillery located high in the nearby mountains. When Taketsuru built his second whisky distillery in 1969, ten years before his death, he wanted it to be the polar opposite of the Yoichi site. I'll be back to explain all those differences later today.

-David Driscoll


Japan: Day 2 – Yoichi/Story of Nikka – Part II

Masataka Taketsuru was born into a sake brewing family in the year 1894. Carrying on with the family tradition, he studied chemistry and went to work for the Settsu Shuzo company, making sake as he had been taught. Taketsuru's interests reached beyond Japanese beverages, however, and in 1918 he convinced his boss to send him to Scotland where he could study whisky production. Upon arrival he enrolled in classes at the University of Glasgow and found apprenticeships at both the Longmorn and Hazelburn distilleries. 

In 1920, he did something incredibly controversial: he married a Scottish woman named Jessie Roberta Cowan, or "Rita", as he called her. Taketsuru had met Cowan's younger sister in class and was later introduced by her to his future bride. Needless to say, the matrimony wasn't met with open arms by Rita's family, so the couple eventually made their way back to Japan. In 1922, Taketsuru left Settsu Shuzo to work for Kotobukiya (which would later become Suntory) to put his Scottish skills to good use; they wanted his help building Japan's first whisky distillery: Yamazaki. Taketsuru worked a ten year contract for Kotobukiya, but left in 1934 and established his own company called Dai Nippon Kaju: the Japanese Juice Company. Using apples from the northern island of Hokkaido, he produced both juice and wine until he could save enough money to begin distillation.

In establishing a whisky distillery in Japan—one that would faithfully recreate the traditional style of Scotland's renowned producersTaketsuru believed there were four key requirements that would need to be met: the location needed to be similar to the Scottish climate, the distillery would need to create a variety of different styles of whisky, both pot and column stills should be utilized, and quality blending skills would be a must. His old boss Kotobukiya thought building a distillery on Hokkaido was insane. How would people be able to visit a destination so remote? How would one transport the whisky for sale and exportation? The town of Yoichi had a cold, snowy Scottish climate and clean water; two things Taketsuru believed would result in good whisky. 

In 1936, Taketsuru installed the first copper pot stills at his Dai Nippon Kaju location in the town of Yoichi. The first whisky, called Nikka, was released in 1940 and the name of the company was changed to reflect the whisky in 1952. If you had to compare the Yoichi distillery to a Scottish counterpart, the clear analogy would be Springbank. Both distilleries are located right downtown in a somewhat urban setting, both locations are near the water, both utilize fat-necked pot stills with downward-sloping lyne arms, heated from below and capable of producing heavier whiskies, and both distilleries make a variety of different expressions. 

Remaining faithful to the old tradition, Yoichi still uses coal to power their stills; creating an inferno that blazes anywhere from 800 to 1000 degrees beneath the copper pot. The inconsistency of the process and the exact location of each hot spot is believed to be integral to Yoichi's eventual character.

Cooperage is also key to Yoichi's versatile flavor profile. There are twenty-seven dunnage warehouses on site, aging single malt whisky in Bourbon barrels, puncheons, hogsheads, and sherry butts. 

Casks are also recharred and reconditioned when needed, both to rekindle the flavor of used barrels and also to intensify the flavors in others. We were treated to an amazing display of sherry butt caramelization. I've never smelled oak so delicious in my life.

There's a lot more to talk about, but I'm pressed for time at the moment. More later.

-David Driscoll