Whisky: Rising Suntory

Karuizawa whisky

Japanese malt is taking the world by storm. Matthew Wilcox explains why the country’s whisky is no longer lost in translation

“Mr Bob-san, imagine you’re relaxing in your study. There’s a bottle of Suntory whisky on the table. Now, with intense feeling, slowly, look at the camera, as if to an old friend, like Bogie in Casablanca saying, ‘Here’s looking at you kid…’ Suntory time!”

When Bill Murray’s character was asked by an increasingly hysterical director to channel Bogart for a whisky advert in the 2003 film, Lost in Translation, the effect may have been pure bathos, but in fact, the picture painted by the director perfectly encapsulates the aspirations of millions of Japan’s malt fanatics.

For the discerning Tokyo drinker, the ideal remains a hazily-lit bar, where – long after the last commuter trains have left Shinjuku – the errant salarymen can while away the night (or morning), lost in a delicious fug of whisky, cigarette smoke and Blue Note reissues.

At the heart of this is a love affair with whisky. While the vagaries of fashion in the West may have condemned malt to the endless cycle of premature death and much-hyped rediscovery (Whisky Galore As Sales Surge!; Whisky The Next Gin!?), the Japanese have spent the past 90 years obsessively creating their very own hard-boiled wonderland in the midst of Tokyo’s 300,000 bars.

Scotland may have Japan whipped for quantity of distilleries by a ratio of ten to one, but the Japanese have carved out their own space in the market by matching the manic search for quality that distinguishes their home market.

And now, the rest of the world is starting to pay attention too, kickstarted it seems, by the massive publicity generated from appearing alongside Scarlett Johansson. This year, the Japanese have won the Whisky World Championship, while a Japanese whisky has been named the world’s best in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015. Meanwhile, Suntory picked up the Distiller of the Year award for the fourth time at the 2014 International Spirits Challenge.

Bonhams expert Martin Green explains what makes Japanese malt so interesting. “It tends to be lighter and more aromatic than Scotch,” he says, “showing great purity, similar to a Speyside, but with a completely distinctive and exotic character of its own.”

While the success of Japanese whisky may be a recent phenomenon, the roots of the whisky industry in Japan stretch surprisingly deep, dating back to 1872, when a shipment was made from Edinburgh to Yokohama. The first whisky distillery in Japan was set up 50 years later in 1923, when Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory, bought a plot of land in Yamazaki, on the outskirts of Kyoto – a place already famous for its association with the tea ceremony, owing to the quality of the water.

In fact, many of the families involved in whisky production have had hundreds of years of experience as distillers, making Japan’s own indigenous spirit, shochu. One such distiller is Ichiro Akuto, who is the 21st generation of his family in the business. A complete set of Ichiro’s Playing Card Series was the highlight of Bonhams August whisky sale in Hong Kong.

The ongoing success of this industry should ensure that some corner of the floating world will remain forever Bogart – even if Rick’s was a ‘gin joint’.

Matthew Wilcox is Deputy Editor of Bonhams Magazine.