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Japanese Scotch Triumphs

Jun 8, 2008
In 1975 a friend asked me if I wanted to become involved in the marketing of a new whisky, from India. A few days later he arrived with a brown bottle in the shape of an eagle and poured me a glass of amber liquid, which looked like any other whisky I had ever seen. It smelled like whisky too. But it tasted like engine oil, with an aftertaste of Liquafruta - a particularly revolting cold remedy preferred by an aunt I spent my summers with as a child. Or at least that's how I remember it now, thirty odd years later.

I never did become involved with that particular business and I've avoided imported scotch-alikes ever since. So it was with some surprise I read that 20-year-old Yoichi, distilled by Nikka, beside The Sea of Japan had been voted the world's best single malt whisky at The World Whisky Awards, hosted by the UK's Whisky Magazine in April.

Another Japanese triumph was Suntory's, Hibiki receiving the accolade for the world's best, blended whisky, for the second year running. This must be particularly galling to the Scottish distillers, as it was in Scotland that Masataka Taketsuru learned the art of distilling in the 1920's. When he returned to Japan he helped to found the whisky distillery that is now Suntory.

The prizewinners were chosen in a blind tasting by a panel of sixteen master blenders, journalists and distillers from a selection of two hundred different whiskies from around the globe. Yoichi beat some formidable local names, including last year's winner Talisker 18 year old, distilled on The Isle of Skye.

The judges said Japanese distillers were producing excellent Scotch with the variable climate in Japan assisting maturation and creating a purer whisky with a more interesting nose. Traditional distilling apparatus such as coal-fired pot stills, rarely used in Scotland, were also credited with adding flavour to the Japanese products.

A Suntory spokesman said that, although exports to Europe were relatively small, they had managed to increase sales of their Yamazaki brand from just over two thousand bottles four years ago to forty eight thousand bottles last year. Kiyoshi Monoka, Suntory's marketing director for Europe was very upbeat after their win saying: "15 years ago we were told it was nonsense to try to sell Japanese whisky to the rest of the world. Now we have many, many fans enjoying Japanese whisky and looking for new brands to try."

With exports up nearly fifteen percent, the Scottish industry probably does not see Japan as much of a threat. But last year Scottish distillers decided to make a combined investment of 400 million pounds ($800 million) to be spent over the next three years improve existing distilleries and building new distilleries and warehousing. They hope this investment will give them the capacity to protect existing markets and cope with increasing demand from emerging markets in China and India.

Although they only began making whisky eighty years ago at the Yamazaki Distillery, the Japanese appear to have learned a lot and consensus at the awards seemed to be that Scottish whisky makers still deserved their reputation, but could not afford to be complacent.

Tetsuji Hisamitsu, chief blender at the Yoichi distillery, just smiled and said he was "very moved" by the award.
About the Author
Sam Scribbler ex ad-man living at the end of the world. http://oldmaltwhisky.com
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