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Japanese whisky: One steep sip

Photography by Eric Helgas; styling by Alex Citrin-Safadi
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After spending decades in relative obscurity, Japanese whisky is finally getting global appreciation for its masterful flavors. Global demand is high, with prices to match. There’s just one problem: There’s no technical definition of Japanese whisky, or formal system to regulate it. Does it matter if not all Japanese whisky is strictly from Japan?

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Featuring

Kira Bindrim is the host of the Quartz Obsession podcast. She is an executive editor who works on global newsroom coverage and email products. She is obsessed with reality TV.

Tim McDonnell is a reporter covering global climate change and energy issues based in Cairo. He is obsessed with baking bread and will never turn down a well-mixed Manhattan.


Show notes

Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt named the best whisky in the world in 2015

Sammy Davis Jr’s Suntory commercial, 1974

Sean Connery’s Suntory commercials, early 1990s

Keanu Reeves’ Suntory commercial, 1992

Orson Welles’ Nikka commercial, 1979

Lost in TranslationBill Murray’s Suntory commercial

This episode uses the following sounds from freesound.org and SoundCloud:
Whisky pour.wav by BeeProductive
Coin Sounds.wav by everythingsounds
2020-01-04 by Doctor_Dreamchip
Whisky Glasses Clink by everythingsounds


Transcript

Kira Bindrim: How much would you pay for a bottle of whisky? $20? $50? $100? How about $435,273? That’s how much a buyer paid at a Sotheby’s auction last year for a 52-year-old bottle of Japanese whisky. And while that might be an extreme example, it’s definitely not the only one. Japanese whisky just keeps getting more expensive. In 2014, one 14-year-old bottle from a Japanese distillery sold for just a few hundred bucks. Now it costs almost $10,000. That’s more than $650 a glass.

Now, it wasn’t always like this. After debuting in the mid 20th century, Japanese whisky toiled in obscurity for years. No one liked it at home, and no one cared about it abroad. It was only once Japanese whiskies started getting global acclaim that sales began to soar. In 2015, one whisky ranking named a Yamazaki Single Malt the best whisky in the world. The judge called it “near indescribable genius.”

So okay, Japanese whisky is all the rage, and the good stuff is really good. There’s just one problem: There’s no technical definition of Japanese whisky or formal system to regulate it. That means a lot of Japanese whisky doesn’t actually come from Japan at all.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: Japanese whisky, and what happens when a national product becomes an international hit.

I’m joined now by Tim McDonnell, who is actually Quartz’s climate and energy reporter and who recently moved to Cairo. Thank you for joining me, Tim. How is Cairo?

Tim McDonnell: It’s very hot. Cairo is great, I’ve only been here for a few months. But I passed my first exam in my Arabic class this morning with flying colors. So I’m feeling good about that.

Kira Bindrim: Oh, congrats! That’s great.

Tim McDonnell: Yeah, shukran.

Kira Bindrim: So you are an American who is based in Egypt who is also talking today about Japanese whisky. So it’s a real three-fer of global interests. Tell me how you got interested in this particular topic.

Tim McDonnell: I don’t consider myself a whisky aficionado, but I do enjoy drinking whisky. When I lived in Washington DC, I was friends with the owner of our neighborhood liquor store, and he had a great selection of Japanese whiskies, actually. And so I tried a few of them that were there—some Suntory and Nikka. That was kind of my first introduction. But I had no idea about any of the backstory, any of the history—that was all new to me in working on this story. So that was all really exciting.

What is whisky?

Kira Bindrim: Okay, well, maybe we can start with some of the basics. What makes whisky whisky? the most basic question.

Tim McDonnell: What is whisky? So whisky is a distilled malt beverage, it has a brown color, it’s aged in oak barrels. And it’s delicious. There’s a few different kinds—you have scotch scotch, coming from Scotland, obviously has a sort of heavy peat kind of taste. You have American bourbon, which is a little bit more on the sweet side. Japanese whisky kind of comes from a Scottish tradition, but is also very experimental. And yeah, I mean, that’s a very basic definition, I guess.

Kira Bindrim: What distinguishes Japanese whisky? Is it made a different way? Does it just taste different? What is meant to set it apart from other whiskies?

Tim McDonnell: So in a lot of ways, Japanese whisky is not fundamentally different from scotch, but it is aged in a different kind of oak. There’s mizunara is the type of oak that the barrels are typically made from in Japan. You know, the Japanese whiskies that I’ve sampled, I find are a little bit lighter on the palate than scotch, they’re not quite so peat-heavy, they’re very versatile in that sense. So they’re actually really great.

Kira Bindrim: So generally, the wood of the casks is different or specific type of wood, and they tend to be lighter and less sweet than some of the Scottish or American competitors.

Tim McDonnell: I think that’s right. That’s a good summary. Yep.

Suntory Toki or Iwai 45

Kira Bindrim: Okay, I want to go back to the origin story of Japanese whisky in Japan, but first I thought maybe I would do some journalism, by which I mean sip some Japanese whisky in real time for research purposes. Okay, I have a Suntory Toki. And I have an Iwai 45, am I saying that right?

Tim McDonnell: I think so.

Kira Bindrim: Those are my options. Which one do you think I should start with?

Tim McDonnell: We could start maybe with the Suntory. I mean, I feel like a place to start is just by looking at it. You can kind of talk about the appearance and the Suntory I think is lighter in color. And compared to the other one…

Kira Bindrim: It is, it is, yeah. I would describe the Suntory as the amber from Jurassic Park that the mosquito was in. That’s what I would write in my official review.

Tim McDonnell: So this is one that, you know, probably anyone who’s listening, if you go to your local liquor store, this is going to be one that you’re almost certain to find. It’s very common, probably the most common Japanese whisky that you’ll find in America. But, yeah, I’m interested to know what you think about it, Kira.

Kira Bindrim: I’m not drinking out of an official whiskey glass, which I know is a thing, right? You’re supposed to have a snifter of some sort. But I am smelling it.

Tim McDonnell: And? How’s the smell.

Kira Bindrim: It doesn’t make me not want to drink it, which is like a real powerful compliment for liquor for me. Oh, that’s quite tasty.

Tim McDonnell: So what are you getting from it?

Kira Bindrim: It’s just, it’s light. It’s not—I mean, I feel like I’m drinking liquor because it’s got the, I’m getting the little warm burn down your throat, but not in a like ugh way. In like a pleasant way.

Tim McDonnell: You know, the fact that it’s, you’re not feeling that it’s overpowering or too heavy, I think is very typical.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, I’m ready for my second whisky. So this one’s a little bit darker. It’s actually—so I’m sitting at like, kind of, almost like a teak table. And it matches nicely, the table. They pair nicely.

Tim McDonnell: Does it smell different at all, or?

Kira Bindrim: It’s not as, like the smell doesn’t feel as strong to me.

Tim McDonnell: Interesting.

Kira Bindrim: Ooo. The taste is interesting on that one.

Tim McDonnell: Do you feel like you’re getting any of the, like—what about coconut, for example? Is that is that coming through at all? Or any, like, incense kind of flavor?

Kira Bindrim: It’s a lot more in the, like, upfront taste versus the finish. Like I thought the first one hit me a little more in like the three seconds after I drank it. This one’s like right in the mouth. Well, that is tasty. Okay, I feel much more qualified to participate in this conversation.

Tim McDonnell: Yes, that can launch us off into the rest of the conversation.

What is distinct about Japanese whiskey?

Kira Bindrim: Let’s go back to some of the origin story of Japanese whisky. When roughly did whisky arrive in Japan?

Tim McDonnell: So the very earliest arrival of whisky in Japan actually goes back well before whisky was being produced in Japan. The first barrels of whisky to arrive in Japan actually came from the US naval commander Matthew Perry, who was on a diplomatic mission and had brought some whisky in barrels, presumably for him and his sailors’ own enjoyment, but also as a gift for people that they were there to do business with. This was in the 1850s. So, I mean, this is important because, you know, it did start as an import. And it also started very much as a drink for the elite. It wasn’t until a few decades later that some Japanese beverage entrepreneurs started to import distilling equipment. There became this desire to see, you know, what if we could actually distill some of this stuff ourselves? So you had a sake brewer, Sensu Shozu, who had one of his young employees, a gentleman by the name of Masataka Taketsuru, who is a chemist, working in this sake brewery. And he was dispatched by his employer to go to Scotland and learn this trade of whiskey distilling. And he set up shop there, traveled around to a number of distilleries over the course of a couple of years, met a Scottish woman by the name of Rita and married her and convinced her to actually come back with him to Japan. He took a job with a different wine distributor, this one by the name of Shinjiro Torii. They became sort of business partners. So Taketsuru was kind of coming at this from the chemistry side—he was the distiller, this sort of craftsman—and then his business partner Tori was more on the distribution side, the business side, more of the entrepreneur. He traditionally dealt in wine but was very keen to make this pivot into whisky. So they made a very natural pairing. And they together set up Yamazaki, which was the country’s first whisky distillery, and, you know, almost a hundred years later would be the very same distillery to produce the whisky that you mentioned earlier Kira that won this whiskey bible award as the world’s best whisky. So that took about not quite a century for the distillery that they set up to dominate the world. But that’s kind of where it all got started.

Kira Bindrim: So from like the 1850s to the early 1900s, it’s really only existing through trade and people who are bringing in as like a foreign drink. And there are distilleries in Japan but not for an imported liquor like this, maybe for sake and for wine, things like that. And then these two guys come and they set up this first distillery after one of them having spent time in Scotland. And then that becomes one of these giant brands.

Tim McDonnell: Exactly, exactly.

Kira Bindrim: And so the distillery we talked about at the end there, that’s Suntory? Is that the one that they set up?

Tim McDonnell: Yeah, it had a different name. I think originally, it was just referred to as, the name of the distillery is Yamazaki. The company went through iterations over time, but its roots are ultimately the company that we know today as Suntory. So that’s the oldest and largest distillery in Japan. They eventually split off into different rival shops. And so Taketsuru, who was the chemist, the original sort of distiller—he left he set up his own company called Nikka, which, you know, is another brand that people may be familiar with today. These two, Suntory and Nikka, have been sort of neck and neck in terms of both the domestic whisky market in Japan, and also internationally.

Kira Bindrim: We’ve been talking a lot about the prices of Japanese whisky, and we’re generally talking about the price of Japanese whisky outside of Japan. In Japan, I’m tentatively assuming that it’s cheaper because it’s local. But what is—is the price point particularly high or is it pretty, you know, standard?

Tim McDonnell: You know, these shops, Nikka and Suntory, some of their earliest customers domestically were actually not Japanese drinkers at all but we’re actually Americans, American military officers who were stationed in Japan who missed bourbon or missed the taste of home and were early customers for Nikka and for Suntory. It was in the decades after that when whisky sort of disseminated more widely out into society. And this was a period of incredible growth for these two brands, Nikka and Suntory, and also others that came onto the scene at this time. Over the course of these few decades, from the 1950s into the 1980s, consumption volume of whisky domestically in Japan grew more than 500%. So it’s kind of taking off and really taking root as a beverage that people are finding in neighborhood restaurants and just sort of drinking normally.

Part of this whole process of developing the domestic market for Japanese whisky has often relied on foreign messengers to deliver the marketing message. So there’s an amazing collection of ads out there you can find on the internet, TV ads from over time, where the spokespeople are Sammy Davis Jr., Sean Connery, Keanu Reeves, Orson Welles was another very early one, as early as the 1970s. If you’ve seen the movie Lost in Translation, the whole movie is premised on Bill Murray going to Japan to record a television commercial for Suntory. I mean, that is really based on a very real, long tradition of Suntory commercials starring white male foreign actors. And despite everything that we are talking about, it remains true to this day that for Suntory, and for Nikka, and for other distillers, that this local domestic market remains the cash cow—is still the biggest part of their customer base is domestic.

Kira Bindrim: We’ll put the link in the in the show notes because that Sammy Davis commercial is just perfection. This conversation is fascinating, Tim. We will be right back.

[ad break]

Kira Bindrim: Now, two things I know about whisky are that: One, quality is important; and two, age is important. And those things are related. How do they play into Japanese whisky in particular?

Tim McDonnell: When you look at any bottle of whisky, whether it’s from Japan or anywhere else, very often it will have an age statement on it. Ten years, 12 years, 15 years—these are the length of time that the whiskey has spent aging in this oak barrel. I think most people agree that there’s a sort of direct correlation between the amount of time that it spends in the barrel and the value. And what’s really interesting in the story of Japanese whisky is that there was this kind of explosion of interest internationally in Japanese whisky at a time when the industry was not necessarily prepared for that. Once these whiskies started to win international awards and start to appear in international whisky guidebooks and Japanese whisky kind of becomes this whole thing, they started to sell out of the older whiskies much more quickly than I think anyone anticipated. I mean, when you have a product that has to sit in a barrel for 10 or more years before it can be ready, if you suddenly overnight have this boom in demand, there’s really not much you can do. You can’t speed that process up, you can’t just make more whisky overnight. The ones that, the Japanese whiskies that you see that have these price points that are more in the thousands, or tens of thousands, or like crazy price price points—these are the ones that have age statements, they are more than 10 years old, they sort of date back to this period in the early 2000s, they would have gone into a barrel, sometime in the early 2000s, late 90s, at a time when there was a very limited international market for Japanese whisky, and it did not have anything like the reputation that it has today. The two that you have sampled today, I think they do not have age statements on them. Is that correct?

Kira Bindrim: No, they don’t have anything noting age.

Tim McDonnell: You know, one of the interesting things is that I think Japanese distillers have a very good reputation as blenders. And so it’s not, they’re able to take whiskies from Japan or that are imported and mix them in different interesting combinations and do a lot of great stuff. I mean, the two whiskies that you sampled did not have age statements, but it sounded like you enjoyed them. So, you know, it’s not to say that, if it doesn’t have an age statement, that it’s terrible. But tI think the journey that this industry is on is one of trying to kind of get back to a place where they can sort of catch up with these age statements. And you know, maybe, as we follow this industry in the next five or 10 years, hopefully you’ll start to see that those age labels—10, 12 years—start to become more common in the export product. And the price for those kind of comes back down into more of a normal sub-$100 kind of range.

Kira Bindrim: What you just said is, Japanese whisky is known for being well blended and that makes it possible to use imported whisky, which makes my little red alarms go off, because aren’t we talking about Japanese whisky? Where’s the cheap end coming from? And it sounds like maybe the answers is, ironically, imports.

Best Japanese whisky may not be from Japan

Tim McDonnell: Yeah, so this has been, this is kind of a controversial thing with Japanese whisky. So they’ve been looking, obviously, for ways to plug this supply gap. And one of the key ways that they do that is by importing whiskey from Scotland or from America or from other producers elsewhere in the world, and blending it and then putting a label on it that says that it’s Japanese, and then exporting it back out again. And, you know, you could make an argument that there is certainly an art to the blending process. But I think there’s a lot of consternation among, you know, real whisky aficionados and among those who are kind of following this industry closely that a lot of what we actually see as being Japanese is not actually Japanese, in the sense that it was not actually originally distilled. In Japan, it’s a sort of recycled product that then comes back from abroad. If you think about scotch, or you think about champagne, for example—these are beverages that are very closely associated with their terroir, their geographic origin. And scotch producers in Scotland or champagne producers in France are extremely sensitive and protective about that label and spend a lot of time and effort and money lobbying to keep those regulations in place. In Japan, there’s not a legally binding definition of what constitutes Japanese whisky—it’s more of just sort of a descriptor, but not one that that has a lot of weight behind it necessarily. There’s an argument to be made that putting that kind of regulation in place would protect the brand, could help protect, you know, Japanese producers, and maybe give a kind of market edge. But at the same time, my understanding is that, you know, whisky trade groups in Japan are actually not in favor of this type of regulatory protection that their peers in Scotland or France or elsewhere tend to seek out. Because they’re not really in a place to be able to fully provide the demand that’s out there with the product that they’re able to produce themselves. So this has become kind of a controversial and touchy thing in the industry. It’s just a question of transparency, right? It’s like, you know, you could have a very excellent distillery in Japan that maybe does magical things with blending, and that’s great. But, you know, I do think there’s a case to be made for having a bit more transparency in the labeling and not necessarily calling this thing Japanese whisky when in fact what you’re really drinking is an American whisky that was blended in Japan, or re-bottled in Japan or something like that. It’s something that the industry is going to have to continue to grapple with over the next several years as it continues to catch up on the age labels and the supply gap.

Kira Bindrim: Where does the transparency or the quality control question come up against this awards thing that we’ve been talking about? Like, it’s clear that in the last couple of years, Japanese whiskies or some of them have gained enough legitimacy to be winning, you know, best whisky in the world, and things like that. Tell me a little bit about these awards. Like, what, how important are they? It seems like a very sort of insular industry and so I get the sense that they’re pretty important. But also where has it come up, or has it come up in the context of awards that Japan does not have a process? Or there isn’t a process to really, technically define Japanese?

Made in America

Tim McDonnell: I think that the whiskies that are winning awards and are center stage and in the spotlight internationally are not the lower-end blended ones that we’re really talking about. I mean, these are still the higher-end, what you might call true Japanese whiskies. The Japanese whiskies have sort of skyrocketed to international fame on the basis of these awards that some of them are winning. But then if you as a regular shopper in the US or Europe go to your local liquor store and look for whisky—you know, it’s not to say that they that none of them are truly Japanese, or that they’re all bogus. But there’s a decent chance that, unless you’re shelling out quite a bit of money, what’s in your glass at the end of the day is not actually originating in Japan.

Kira Bindrim: This is all super interesting to me, because I think, inevitably, when you have a local product that goes global, it’s going to lose some of its quality—if not literally the quality, then some of the original identity that made it famous in the first place. It’s interesting when you have a product like whisky where the definition of quality is so specific, and it kind of raises this question to me about the trade-offs of going global. Like you will lose some of that identity or potentially expose the fact that that identity wasn’t fully formed in the first place. But also, one of the things you’re alluding to is, transparency is good, but so is maybe expanding your definition of what is considered good. And it sounds like maybe over time with whisky, some expansion of the definition of what’s considered good, in addition to transparency, would be valuable hearing kind of accomplish all of the things except for the supply problem, which will persist.

Tim McDonnell: Yeah, absolutely.

Kira Bindrim: Usually asked for like a fun fact, or some sort of interesting tidbit I can share with with someone about the topic we’re talking about, but I think listeners really deserve something pretty practical here. I would love to hear about your favorite cocktail to make with Japanese whisky and how you make that. What’s your recommendation to us?

Tim McDonnell: Well, the very standard-issue cocktail is the Japanese whisky high ball, which is very, very simple, just a whisky soda. But you know, Japanese whiskey as I said, you know, it doesn’t have this very thick, heavy peat flavor of scotch and so you can actually mix it quite well with anything. Personally, I am a big lover, a great lover of Manhattans, which you listeners probably know is whisky and sweet vermouth stirred over ice with a little bit of bitters, stirred and strained and served in a martini glass with a maraschino cherry in the bottom. I love that one. And certainly Japanese whisky would be a great option for that. Yeah, that’s probably a good place to start on.

Kira Bindrim: Thank you so much for joining me, Tim. This was great.

Tim McDonnell: My pleasure Kira. Thank you so much.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake, and the theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Special thanks to reporter Tim McDonnell in Cairo, and editor Alex Ossola in New York. If you liked what you heard, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! Buy a bottle of Japanese whisky, invite them over, and listen together. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.

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