André Simon Awards: The Way of Whisky

In the run-up to the André Simon Awards this month, the drinks business is running an extract from each of the shortlisted books in the drinks category. Next up, Dave Broom gets to grips with Japanese malts in The Way of Whisky, A Journey around Japanese Whisky, published by Mitchell Beazley.

This is how my first-ever day in Japan went. Arrive at Tokyo’s Narita airport, sushi for lunch in the city, bullet train (shinkansen) to Kyoto, train to Yamazaki. Before I quite knew what was happening, I was sitting alongside my old friend and mentor Michael Jackson while chief blender Seiichi Koshimizu was asking us to taste Suntory’s whisky. It was reddish in colour and had an aroma unlike anything we had encountered before. We hazarded guesses. He smiled his shy smile. ‘It is mizunara. Japanese oak. We say it smells of temples.’

As I said, it was my first day in Japan. I hadn’t had a chance to smell a temple. Now I wanted to. It was a lesson in the cultural aspect of aromas. Smell is not fixed by language, but open to interpretation and that interpretation is partly determined by upbringing. I might say that the smell of a smoky whisky is like the Glasgow underground c.1967. A Japanese colleague might interpret it as a specific medicine. Past and place dictate the terms we use to describe the smells around us. Part of the fascination of travel is discovering new tastes and flavours, comparing home with this new place. Later that evening I was sitting next to a maiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha). ‘Do you eat many small potatoes in Scotland?’ was her opening line.

This mizunara was different, though. It was resinous, slightly like sandalwood, with a little bit of coconut; but none of these terms are quite accurate. I could have mentally labelled it ‘exotic’ and moved on, but it had me. I was being led by the nose deeper into Japan. ‘It smells of temples’ was now a suggestion that I should seek out these places and inhale them. In time, that led me to learn about incense, an aromatic thread which led from Japan, to Vietnam, to Arabia, high-end perfumers, and back to Japan again.

Mizunara, I realized, slowly, was a way of creating a marker for (some) Japanese whisky. Its use said: ‘This aroma is one way in which our whisky is special. We use it because of its aroma and that aroma means something special to us.’ It rooted the whisky in Japan, it helped to define it as different.

On that same day, Suntory’s Mas Minabi described Japanese whisky as being ‘transparent’. These whiskies had an aromatic intensity unlike Scotch; they were paradoxically managing to be vivid yet delicate, subtly powerful. The flavours were ordered, complex and seamless on the tongue; they had a clarity and precision. Some were familiar from Scotch, but the manner in which they presented themselves was different. Each glass was whisky, but it was not the whisky I had been brought up on. What makes Japanese whisky ‘Japanese’ has obsessed me ever since.

I was lucky enough to begin travelling to the country twice, sometime three times, a year. Every time I returned, another door seemed to open. I thought initially it was because I was beginning to be trusted, but that was just ego at work. I suspect that answers to the questions would have been given if I had known what questions to ask. I was being tutored, but was too stupid to realize it. Those apparently opaque, philosophical answers were in fact perfectly rational when my mind caught up. And so it continued, slowly moving forward, still asking that question: ‘But how is it Japanese?’

Part of the answer lay in the often subtle differences in production between Japanese and Scottish distillers. Some of it came from the climate and the way it influenced maturation. There was mizunara, of course, but not every whisky contained it. The rest of the conundrum, I began to believe, was rooted in place. Whisky does not sit apart from the culture that produces it. So much impacts on its making: ingredients, climate, landscape, cuisine, palate, manner of consumption. The cultural terroir in Japan will be different to that in Scotland – or in any other whisky-making nation.

What if, I began to wonder, there was some unseen link between Japan’s whisky-makers and the country’s other traditional craftsmen? The more I visited and talked to whisky-makers the more I saw that they were shokunin, master artisans dedicated to their craft. The way they approached whisky was imbued with the concept of kaizen – continuous incremental improvement. There seemed to be an aesthetic behind it that linked whisky to a web of other crafts: cooking, ceramics, metalwork, woodwork, and also design and architecture; even the way bartenders went about their craft. The more I looked, or obsessed about it, the more I saw the same impulse. That clarity was in the food, in the lack of ornamentation; it was there in haiku. Equally, maybe I was making connections where there were none. Maybe they just made whisky. Perhaps I was just mad. I had to find out one way or other.

So back I went, to visit all the distilleries and see other craftspeople. Ask them what motivated them, what lay behind their work. See if those connections were in fact there. A road test in both senses. A book at the end of it no matter what, but not one just of tasting notes, scores, sections on history and how whisky is made, and in-depth facts and figures. All of that is useful, and other writers will give you that.

I wanted to try and find out why whisky matters, what drives these people on, how it links to that wider culture, where tradition comes in. How strong was their craft, or how precarious?

The great 21st-century paradox is how greater connectivity has allowed us to separate ourselves from those things we are told we don’t like. We no longer browse. Algorithms tell us what, even who, we like. Something like whisky is reduced to little more than tasting notes and statistics about process. The richness and messiness of this complex, interdependent world are being steadily eroded, the connections are being lost and with their passing whisky floats free of place, history, weather, water and rock, and the people who make it. Separating whisky from all these things diminishes it and diminishes the people who make it. It can’t be allowed to happen.

 

Reprinted with permission from The Way of Whisky, A Journey around Japanese Whisky by Dave Broom, copyright © 2017. Published by Mitchell Beazley.

All these books have been shortlisted in the drinks category for the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards 2017 Founded in 1978, the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards are the only awards in the UK to exclusively recognise the achievements of food and drink writers and are the longest continuous running awards of their kind. The first two awards were given to Elizabeth David and Rosemary Hume for their outstanding contribution in the fields of food and cooking. Other winners include Michel Roux, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein. www.andresimon.co.uk

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