Land of the rising dram

HEAD up 25 floors to the top of Tokyo’s Shiodome Park Hotel and you find a craftsman at work. Ensconced in the centre of one of Japan’s finest drinking dens, the sultry Bar a Vins, Mr Takayuki Suzuki hand-carves perfectly spherical orbs out of ice. These he drops into a tumbler and pours over whisky – a dramatic, uniquely Japanese way of drinking the spirit. And while it works well with Scottish single malts, the bottles Mr Suzuki uses have names like Yamazaki and Yoichi – Japan, you see, is now producing world class whisky.

The Japanese obsession with the brown stuff dates back to the 1920s, with an industry using production processes almost identical to those found in Scotland.

Indeed the origins of Japanese whisky distillation are rooted in the practices of the now-defunct Hazelburn distillery, once found on the west coast of Scotland. The story goes that Masataka Taketsuru, a Japanese student of organic chemistry at university in Scotland, wanted to launch Japan’s first whisky distillery.

While on a work placement at Hazelburn, he began to learn the secrets behind the key stages of whisky production, before returning to Japan with a Scottish wife and a head full of plans. He joined forces with successful wine importer Shinjiro Torii, and together they founded the Yamazaki distillery, constructed in the lush, green surroundings above the Kansai plain close to Kyoto.

Today, Japan is home to eight working distilleries and Yamazaki has been hitting the headlines and bagging prizes since picking up a Gold award at the 2003 International Spirits Challenge.

“Yamazaki has grown in popularity incredibly since winning its first award, and more and more whisky lovers have been discovering the special qualities in our whisky,” says Kazuyuki Takayama, marketing manager for Yamazaki and its parent company Suntory.

The most noticeable way in which Japanese whisky differs from its Scotch antecedent is that it tends to be more subtle in flavour.

“Yamazaki and [sister distillery] Hakushu have lots of balance, with fresh, floral and fruity notes, which make them very approachable, even to non-whisky drinkers,” says Takayama. “It’s not a substitute to Scotch, but a discovery of something with its own beautiful qualities.”

It is this lightness in flavour that has lead to a revolution in the way whisky is consumed in Japan, which is now beginning to surface in many of London’s best bars and Japanese restaurants. Drinking styles like the Highball (Japanese whisky, served over ice with sparkling water) or the Mizuwari (made using ice and pure mineral water) offer a way to enjoy the fruity notes contained in Japanese whisky without the intensity of the alcohol.

Japan has also been making waves in the blended whisky world, with Hibiki winning further awards for its ingenious recipe of whiskies matured in bourbon and sherry casks – as well as Japanese plum wine barrels – giving a noticeably rich fruitiness to the overall spirit.

But the attention to detail does not start and finish with the whisky itself. It’s been mooted that the importance placed on the method of serving whisky stems from a separate heritage – the country’s famous tea ceremony. The art of ice ball carving, as perfected by Mr Suzuki, is the best example, and a popular accompaniment to a generous measure of Japanese blended whisky.

Moreover, Tokyo has become famous for its myriad whisky bars, especially in the luxurious Ginza District, and each have their own styles of ice carvings. To sit and observe a skilled bartender like Mr Suzuki at work, hand-crafting a perfectly smooth ball of ice from a large, irregularly-shaped block, is impressive enough. But the science behind such intricate carving means your whisky will stay perfectly chilled, without diluting the flavour too much.

“We’ve been developing our whisky for over 80 years now, evolving and improving it,” says Kazuyuki Takayama. “This is the spirit of our ultimate goal – never standing still and continuously challenging ourselves.”