Japanese whisky might be hotter than the sun right now, but how much do you really know about it? You've heard of Suntory and Nikka, but what about Akkeshi and Shizuoka? Fear not, for help is at hand in the form of 'Whisky Rising – The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan'. Written by the authoritative Stefan Van Eycken and published by Cider Mills Press, Whisky Rising truly is a definitive guide to Japanese whisky, covering the highs and lows (and highs again) of the industry, detailed overviews of distilleries past and present, tasting notes for renowned bottlings, cocktail recipes and bar recommendations. The Dramble was fortunate to catch up with Stefan to talk to him about the his new book, whisky drinking memories and thoughts for the future of Japanese whisky.
Stefan is the Chief Editor of www.nonjatta.com (your best source of information on Japanese whisky on the Interwebs) and a regular contributor to both Whisky Magazine Japan and Whisky Magazine UK. Originally from Belgium, Stefan has lived in Japan since 2000 and, through hard work, dedication and passion has become a pre-eminent authority on the world of Japanese whisky and distilling.
How did you first get interested in the world of whisky, and what was your first experience of Japanese whisky?
My background is in the field of music and it’s through music that I got into whisky. When I was in my (late!) teens, I got to know a composer who wrote pieces named after and loosely inspired by his favorite malt whiskies. I loved the music so I thought: if the music is this good, maybe it’s got something to do with the inspiration behind it.
In those days – and I realize I’m starting to sound like an old fart, here – getting hold of quality whisky wasn’t as prohibitively expensive as it is now, so even with my limited finances as a student, it was doable to get fabulous whiskies, if you looked around a bit. Most people start off with blended whisky, then gravitate to core-range single malts, and then limited editions or single cask bottlings, but for some reason that’s not what happened in my case. I still remember the first bottle I bought was a Cadenhead’s Scapa single cask. That probably explains why I still have a soft spot for Scapa and Cadenhead’s!
I tried a lot of whisky in my late teens and early twenties, but no Japanese whisky. Like most people, I just wasn’t aware there was such a thing. Even after moving to Japan (at the age of 24), I kept drinking Scotch for the most part… until, on my travels through the country, I stumbled upon a few distilleries left and right and tried their offerings. But that story is in the book…
What convinced you to embark on writing Whisky Rising?
I’m taking a few shortcuts here, but after getting involved with Nonjatta – the foremost web-resource on Japanese whisky - and writing about Japanese whisky for various magazines, I started getting requests from publishers in different corners of the world to write a proper book on Japanese whisky. I wanted to do it, but I have a full-time job (in education), am active as a composer AND have a family, so for many years I just didn’t think I’d be able to find the time to write the book I wanted to write – comprehensive and in-depth but readable and of interest for novices, seasoned whisky-fans and anyone in between.
With Japanese whisky turning into a worldwide circus – I’m referring to the mad scramble for crumbs, crazy auction situations and concomitant bat-shit mental prices – many publishers were keen to ride the wave and wanted a book. I was asked again and again, and said “no” over and over. What finally made me say “yes” was 1) the fact that Cider Mill Press asked (I love their work!) and 2) the fact that I heard rumors through the grapevine – or should that be through the barley stalks? – that some people had been approached who were, to put it politely, “armchair specialists”. I don’t want to dwell on this too much, but if I had to draw an analogy, it’d be like me writing a book on Canadian whisky (I’ve never been to Canada, incidentally). I could do it, but should I be doing that? Personally, I don’t think so.
To make a long story short: friends egged me on and said, “isn’t it time you rolled up your sleeves and did it? Sure, it’ll be a lot of work – sure, you won’t have time for anything else while you are awake for the next year or so… but just do it, and then you won’t have to listen to the nagging anymore.” Fair enough, I thought. So that’s what I did.
I’m an independent writer and so all the bills – traveling around the country to visit distilleries again to get “a state of the nation”, hundreds of bar visits, bottle purchases, even paying photographers to take pictures for me…– all that came out of my own pocket. The notion of a “whisky writer” doesn’t exist in Japan, anyway. Elsewhere, maybe writers get invited on all-expenses paid trips, get samples and other “support”. In Japan, that simply doesn’t happen. Producers don’t need to do that – the whisky sells anyway. In fact, there isn’t enough to go around.
At the end of the day, however, there’s no such thing as free whisky. So not being “indebted” to anyone means that I can voice my opinions without having to look over my shoulder. It comes with a price-tag, that independence, but I’m happy to pay that price.
Which areas of research for the book were the hardest and why?
I did a lot of archival research so dealing with Japanese language materials is a little hard from time to time, but that’s a practical thing. Mostly, I would say – and I have to be a bit vague here – the big producers like to play their cards very close to their chest, so asking a lot of questions about the technical side of the process, you don’t always get detailed answers… and sometimes you do get answers, speaking with the people who make the whisky at the distilleries, but then the powers-that-be sometimes weigh in later on and request things to be a little less specific in print… lest their competitors were reading the book, too.
How did you go about making your selection for the '33 shades of liquid gold'?
I am not a huge fan of rating whisky – which is why I don’t score whiskies, except when I’m on a judging panel for some sort of award. At the same time, people DO want to know, “which are the best Japanese whiskies?” My way around this was to ask a few dozen people – whisky makers, bartenders, reviewers, etc. – both in Japan and abroad for their favorite ten Japanese whiskies, their most memorable ones… without the need for rankings and scores. Just off the top of their head, their 10 most memorable ones. I myself had a list (a bit longer than 10) of my own. When I got these lists, obviously, there was a bit of overlap. The 33 whiskies in the book are the result of looking for patterns in the lists that I got, but at the same time, I had the final word. I got one list that was 9 Karuizawas and 1 Yamazaki… Whilst I understand that person’s preference, and also understand that the whiskies he picked are superb without exception, I wanted a selection of 33 that wasn’t one-sided. In other words, I wanted whiskies from all categories – blends, blended malt, single malt, single grain, single cask – and from most producers (not all Karuizawas!) and from a wide range of ages.
Why 33? Well, I had to draw the line somewhere… so it was either going to be a handful more, or I had to stop at 33, so I decided to stop.
Nagahama is not included in your book - anything you can tell us about this new distillery?
The folks at Nagahama Distillery kept their project completely under wraps –which is a hard thing to do in Japan, trust me! – and they announced it literally the day the manuscript was sent to the printer. You know, the day when it’s “no more edits – not even a comma”. We still had to work on the Japanese distilleries map that was at the back of the book, so I managed to pin it on the map… that’s all I could do.
I’ve been to Nagahama in the mean time and have written about in Japanese (for Whisky Magazine Japan, which is online) and in English (a forthcoming article in Whisky Magazine UK), so I’d like to say more but I think it’s best to wait until the next issue of Whisky Magazine UK is out… which should be very soon.
Any subsequent book projects now that Whisky Rising is complete?
Last year (2016) was crazily busy. This year is way more relaxed and I’m enjoying that, but you know, people forget the blood, sweat and tears so easily, so yes, there is a new book project looming on the horizon (that’s in addition to chapters about Japanese whisky for other publications)… but I can’t say too much about it yet. People see me as the “Japanese whisky guy”, but the fact of the matter is, I drink way more non-Japanese whisky than Japanese whisky, and my interests extend far beyond these shores. Not many people know that I write quite a bit about non-Japanese whisky in Japanese, so the next book will include some stuff on Japanese whisky but will also cover whisky-making elsewhere… It won’t be one of those encyclopedic works, covering “all” / lots of distilleries – I think we’ve got plenty of those to keep us happy – but something that tries to capture the ethos, whisky-making approach and processes of a handful of distilleries around the world.
There are suggestions that stocks of aged Japanese whisky should recover in the next 3 or so years.....but will that truly be the case in reality? won't everything and anything produced be just snapped up instantly?
We’re already seeing that – the indiscriminate buying of “any and all Japanese whiskies”. I still remember – and I’m talking 5 years ago here, not 25 years ago! – the days when practically NOBODY was interested in buying say a single cask Karuizawa bottling in Japan. (It was easy to do in those days – in fact, you could buy any vintage from the 60s to 2000 any day of the week, and I’m not exaggerating here.) Now I see people in Japan going bonkers for any and all stuff released here, paying crazy money for it, camping outside department stores overnight – in short, losing perspective.(It’s just liquid at the end of the day!).
Clearly, this is great for smaller producers, who know that whatever they release, people are going to fight to try and get a bottle. I know that whisky-buying (I’m not talking about drinking here, which is a different debate) can be addictive, but I do find myself wondering in the case of many people in Japan who discovered whisky “too late” (i.e. the last few years) and who are getting caught in a spiral of “I need to buy everything I can” how many spare livers these people have.
As far as the big producers are concerned, they don’t have time to worry about single cask releases and limited editions at the moment, it’s all about satisfying mass demand at home in the first place. That’s where the money is. They did single cask things and limited edition whiskies when they couldn’t sell their wares to the man in the street. But those days are gone. I’m not sure that, even if they have enough stock (and let’s face it, does a whisky producer ever have enough stock when sales keep going up and up?), they will have mental space to remember the whisky collector / aficionado / enthusiast.
What innovations do you think we're going to see, particularly from the newer distilleries?
A big question… off the top of my head: local barley is a big thing (most craft producers are keen to distill local barley), other types of wood (e.g. sakura cherry wood) and a focus on different types of grain whisky (the latter only applies to the big producers as the small producers don’t have the infrastructure to make grain whisky).
Which bottles would you recommend to whisky drinkers who have not experienced Japanese whisky so far?
I am deliberately side-stepping this question but it’s honest advice: those that you can easily get to without breaking the bank wherever it is that you live. You’re setting yourself up for a lot of heartache and heavy credit card bills if you get carried away because of the hype. My advice would be: try things at bars as much as you can (provided prices are fair, of course), because I’ve seen it happen too many times to people around me that buying bottles actually leads to drinking less, when it comes to Japanese whisky – for the simple reason that people when they manage they get their hands on a Karuizawa, or a Chihchibu single cask or a Suntory Owner’s Cask bottling or something like that – fetishize it, because they know 1) it’s rare, 2) if they bought it at the original price, it is instantly worth 5, 10 or more times that, and 3) when it’s gone, it’s gone. But I always say to that: who is more fortunate, the person who has a massive collection of Japanese whiskies to look at, or a person who can live with not having a full bottle of everything that is “desirable” but is happy with a dram (or two, or…) of all those liquid marvels at a bar, or sharing a bottle with a group of friends? Whisky only reaches its destiny when it’s consumed. We tend to forget that. Or we fool ourselves and say: I’ll open it one day. But I’ve seen it with friends around me, that threshold of opening a rare Japanese whisky becomes progressively harder to cross with time…
You're marooned on a desert island, you can only have one bottle with you - which is it and why?
If price is no object, then I would say Karuizawa 1964 bottled for Poland. But if it’s a really hot island, I’m happy with a bottle of Suntory Kakubin and some soda – oh, and lots of ice, please!
With thanks to Stefan Van Eycken
You can find your copy of 'Whisky Rising – The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan' via Amazon