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

David Driscoll