Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
And suddenly the whole world found out what the Japanese knew for years but, due to their characteristic introversion, they had neglected to share with those living outside their country: that the Japanese whiskies are better than the Scottish and, by extension, than all the rest. Obviously when referring to taste “better” is subjective but in the world of whisky connoisseurs, all blind tastings end up at the same place: when it comes to top quality malt and single malt whiskies, those coming (mainly) from Japan’s biggest liquor makers, Suntory and Nikka rank higher than anything produced in the Highlands, especially in the last 15 years. And because this is Japan, even the cheaper blended whiskies, the ones sold in supermarkets or convenience stores are of a much higher quality than their Scottish or American counterparts.
Those who have paid attention to the labels had already suspected as much: the Japanese use the Scottish spelling (“whisky”) instead of the American/Irish (“whiskey”) because the method they use to create the drink is a perfect copy of the one used in Scotland. Responsible for that (the process and the spelling) is one man, Masataka Taketsuru (1894-1979) who was involved in the founding of both Suntory and Nikka. A true product of his times, the Meiji Era, Taketsuru went to Scotland to learn how whisky was made in its homeland –there he acquired both the theoretical knowledge, studying chemistry in the University of Glasgow and the practical, working in several distilleries and then he returned to Japan in 1920 with one purpose: to teach his compatriots to drink and make whisky. Almost 100 years later, one could positively say that his dream was realized.
Still, Taketsuru’s great victory is not the top quality 25 year-old single malts, enjoyed straight, in special glasses and in an atmosphere of religious reverence by the cognoscenti or the worldwide acceptance of his legacy which, after one century can be easily characterized “classic”. His greatest achievement is that the drink he brought in his luggage from the Highlands stands as equal next to Japan’s native sake and shochu and is enjoyed by millions of Japanese in various combinations (most common among which is the locally concocted “highball” with lots of ice and lots of soda water which, incidentally is also sold in cans like beer), alone or accompanying food in bars, clubs or restaurants. The chemist from Hiroshima birthed a tradition which is now more Japanese than Scottish –I wonder if there is any better example of what “Japanese culture” means.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.