II: WAKON YOSAI
The history of whisky in Japan is in many ways the history of Japanese modernity. And Japan’s rendezvous with the modern world can be precisely dated: 1853, the year that US Commodore Matthew Perry appeared in Tokyo Bay with his four black-hulled gunships and an order that Japan open itself up to foreign trade. For more than two centuries before, Japan had been completely shuttered to the outside world (for some time, it was a capital offence for citizens to attempt to leave the country). Japan acquiesced to Perry’s superior firepower, and once the country’s ruling class realized just how far ahead the West was in virtually every category of human endeavor, panic set in. To stave off the colonization, or worse, that they thought was certain if Japan did not catch up, they dispatched ambassadors and scientists to Europe and the Americas with instructions to find and return with the very best systems of governance, education, science and technology. That’s why, to this day, you can see English influences on Japan’s Navy, French influences on its bureaucracy, and American influences on its central bank. The rallying cry during Japan’s late 19th and early 20th century crash course was: Wakon yosai! Japanese spirit, western learning. The notion that the Japanese could draw inspiration from the world’s best practices, study them carefully, improve upon them—and often surpass them—permeates much of Japanese industry and culture to this day.
3,500 enlisted men were stinko 15 minutes after they got to shore.
The wakon yosai impulse helped launch Japan’s whisky industry as well. In Drinking Japan, an excellent history of all types of Japanese tipples and a guide on where to enjoy them today, Chris Bunting notes that the history of whisky in Japan goes all the way back to those black ships of Matthew Perry, who gave a 110-gallon barrel of American whiskey to the emperor as a gift. Once Perry departed, however, the Japanese had no idea how to make the stuff themselves. While there were limited and expensive imports throughout the intervening decades, domestic producers made up for the shortfall with locally produced rotgut concocted with dubious means and ingredients. During one bizarre incident described by Bunting, a US Navy officer filed the following report in 1918 after his ship made a brief port of call in Hokkaido: “All the cheap bars have Scotch whiskey made in Japan. If you come across any, don’t touch it. It’s called Queen George, and it’s more bitched up than its name. It must be 86 percent corrosive sublimate proof, because 3,500 enlisted men were stinko 15 minutes after they got to shore. I never saw so many men get so drunk so fast.”
Japan clearly needed some wakon yosai in the whisky department. Around the same time that Queen George was incapacitating the US Navy, a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru was boarding a Japanese liner destined for Europe. Taketsuru had been working for a drinks producer attempting to approximate foreign liquors by mixing grain alcohol with sugar, spices, fruit juices and perfumes. But his bosses realized that these toxic concoctions were unsustainable. If Japan’s whisky industry was going to survive, they needed to know the basics of distilling, so they loaded their most promising employee on a boat with orders to go learn from the best: the Scots.
Takestusru’s journey was arduous and epic. He was routinely turned away from hotels because he was foreign, and the first distiller he approached demanded an exorbitant fee. Undaunted, Takesturu finally secured apprenticeships at the Longmorn distillery in Speyside and Hazelburn in Campbeltown. While on site, he took meticulous notes of everything he saw. Temperatures, ratios, techniques, costs—no detail was too small.
His notebooks contained the blueprint from which Japan’s entire whisky industry would be launched.
In October of 1920, Taketsuru returned to Japan (with his new Scottish wife). His notebooks contained the blueprint from which Japan’s entire whisky industry would be launched. But the company that sent Taketsuru was surprisingly reluctant to act on his newfound knowledge. Frustrated, Taketsuru found refuge with Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical wholesaler turned brewer who’d recently founded the company that would eventually be called Suntory. Torii employed Takesturu to set up Yamazaki, Japan’s first true whisky distillery, near Kyoto, in 1924. The Yamazaki distillery’s first whisky, Shirofuda (“White Label”) went on sale in 1929, a brand that is sold to this day.
In 1934, Takesturu struck out on his own, founding a distillery in Yoichi in Hokkaido. His company would come to be known as Nikka, and the two companies would form one of the most legendary rivalries in Japanese corporate history. Both companies survived during World War II only because they were military suppliers and thus garnered favorable rationing status. The Japanese Imperial Navy, in particular, consumed massive amounts of whisky, and the Yoichi distillery was, at one point, designated a Naval installation.
After WWII, both companies continued to thrive because they continued to be military suppliers, but this time to US occupying forces. As Japan began its spectacularly successful post-war reconstruction, whisky became a very fashionable drink. It was aspirational, Western, modern. Those who were actually wealthy drank imported Scotch or Japan’s own, increasingly high-quality malts. But the rank and file salarymen who drank late into the night with their colleagues in smoky izakayas were happy with cheap, easy-to-drink whiskey highballs made with one of Suntory’s or Nikka’s basic blended whiskies mixed with soda water and ice. As Japan’s economic might exploded, so did its thirst for whisky. Within four decades, Japan became the world’s third largest whisky producer behind the US and Scotland and boasted an annual consumption of more than three liters for every man, woman and child.
III: THE HANYU BLUES
Whisky may have been a novelty in 1853, but Japan had been brewing sake for more than a millennium, and Ichiro Akuto’s family was in the drinks business long before Commodore Perry showed up. The Akutos have made sake in the Chichibu area since 1625 and Ichiro is the 21st generation of his family to make alcoholic beverages. During the post-war whisky boom, Ichiro’s grandfather decided to diversify, built a new plant in the nearby town of Hanyu and acquired a distillery license. Whether it was Saitama’s climate, the clean and cold water from the Tone River, or the Akuto family expertise, no one could say, but the Hanyu distillery started making some excellent whisky and business was good.
As whisky consumption increased throughout the 1980s and high-end malts became more fashionable, Ichiro’s father doubled down on whisky. He imported copper stills from Scotland and started crafting single malts. Under the Golden Horse brand, the Hanyu distillery started producing outstanding single malts, noted for their light sherry notes and just a hint of peat.
Ichiro always planned to go into the family business, but after graduating from Tokyo University of Agriculture, he decided to get some outside work experience first. He applied to Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery program, but was offered a job in the marketing department instead. Japan is one of the largest and most competitive liquor markets in the world, a crucible where giants like Suntory, Kirin and Nikka develop some of the most varied, creative, and outrageous advertising and promotional campaigns around. Though Ichiro was disappointed not to move straight to distilling, this assignment would turn out to be a hidden blessing, because much of Ichiro’s current success undoubtedly rests on his marketing prowess.
Salarymen were no longer seen as the heroes of the Japanese industrial miracle, but as drones and wage-slaves.
As Ichiro was learning the trade from within the relatively well-buffered confines of Suntory, however, the Akuto family firm was reeling from a sudden market collapse. In the early 1990s, Japan’s economic bubble popped, leading to more than a decade of stagnation and national soul-searching. Salarymen were no longer seen as the heroes of the Japanese industrial miracle, but as drones and wage-slaves. In a few short years, the word “salaryman” went from everything college graduates aspired to become (good pay at a prestigious company, automatic raises and promotions, and a guaranteed pension), to an aspersion-filled shorthand for a wasted life. Younger Japanese turned away from what they thought of as their grandfathers’ drink and started ordering clear spirits, shochu, wine, beer, and even sake instead.
While this registered as an alarming slowdown for Suntory and Nikka, for much of the rest of the whisky industry it was cataclysmic. By 2000, after years of steep sales declines, the Akuto family had no choice but to sell the distillery. Ichiro returned to the company, not at all in the way he imagined, but to help sort out years’ worth of paperwork, sales and bankruptcy proceedings.
Hanyu’s buyer, a shochu manufacturer, had no interest in making whisky, so the works were dismantled. And it also had no interest in selling the 400 casks of Hanyu whisky, some of them nearly 30 years old, aging in its warehouses. With the new buyer all but threatening to pour his family’s work down the drain, Ichiro rounded up some new investors, bought the whole lot and plotted his return.
IV: FROM THE SMALLEST ACORN
Most dreamers scribble their reveries in notebooks or declare their affirmations to their bathroom mirror. But as he laid the very first plans to set up a new distillery, Ichiro declared his ambition to the world: He tapped the first of the Hanyu casks in 2005 and sold 600 numbered bottles of 16-year-old whisky. On the front label he printed this: Single Malt Whisky from the distillery once called “Chichibu.” The potstills were dismantled in 2004. Now only stocks are available. The founder’s grandson plans to set up a new distillery.
Ichiro’s timing has been as fortunate as his father’s was unlucky.
Less than a decade later, Ichiro has fulfilled his own prophecy and engineered one of the most remarkable comebacks in Japanese business history. He’s put those old Hanyu stocks at the very pinnacle of the whisky world and founded his own, much lauded new distillery which began bottling new whisky just three years ago. He brands all his releases, whether from the 400 casks or from his own distilling, under the name “Ichiro’s Malt” to reinforce the continuity of the family traditions.
In some regards, Ichiro’s timing has been as fortunate as his father’s was unlucky. Not long after he started plotting his comeback, Japanese whisky started winning the accolades and attention that had always eluded it internationally. In 2001, in an upheaval likened to the wine industry’s 1976’s “Judgment of Paris,” when California wines topped French ones in a blind tasting, a Yoichi 10-year-old single malt distilled by Nikka won the “Best of the Best” award in a blind tasting organized by Whisky Magazine that included the most famous and most prestigious Scotch whiskies.