At this past weekend's Tokyo International BarShow 2018, I had a few minutes with legendary spirits writer Dave Broom. Mr. Broom's recently released book, The Way of Whisky: A Journey Around Japanese Whisky, details his whirlwind trip to discover what makes Japanese whisky "Japanese." This past weekend, however, he was first and foremost the Official Executive for the BarShow.
Whiskey Richard: What have been some of the highlights of this year's BarShow for you?
Dave Broom: It's even bigger this year -- there are more exhibitors this year. Seems to be busier as well, which is always a good thing. I think there's a much greater balance this year between all the spirits. This started life as a whisky show, but it became a bar show. It was kind of was trying to work out what it was for a couple of years. But this year it's become a classic international bar show, with a very distinctive Japanese accent.
WR: After last year's BarShow you called Japan a "gin-maker's paradise." By my count there are 16 new gin distilleries in the past 18 months. Do you think this is a trend that will continue?
DB: What's happening in Japan is mirroring what's going on around the world. There are gin distilleries popping up left, right, and center. What's still happening in Japan is this attempt to understand and appreciate the range of Japanese botanicals, to actually put a stamp on what makes it special -- celebrating the local, celebrating the environment, and the place. Some will succeed, and some will fail. That's an inevitability of the market. I think in the next few years you'll probably see a shakeout of some of the brands. I think you'll begin to see some real themes emerging within this thing called "Japanese gin." It's too early to see if it is a style. It will take a couple years to work out what that is, but the progress that for example Ki No Bi has made--just in the past year--it's extraordinary what they're doing. I'm looking forward to go around and actually try and see what some of the smaller distilleries are doing.
WR: Speaking of smaller distilleries -- the trend obviously hasn't been limited to just gin. In the past six months we saw releases from Kagoshima's Kanosuke Distillery, and of course Akkeshi Distillery. What advice would you give to a new Japanese whisky distillery going forward?
DB: Be patient! Don't try and rush it. I don't think they are. That's something we've seen in other countries, where they're so desperate to get the whisky on the market that they put it into very small casks and kind of force the issue. You can do that with gin -- a great advantage of gin is that you can make a really good balanced product and have it on the market the day after, almost. With whisky you need to take time. You need to allow the distillery to work out what the distillery wants to make. So it's patience, and not panicking.
WR: Japanese whisky is getting to be so popular now, that I feels like it's become a victim of its own success. Do you think that, going forward -- a lot of the makers have been moving to NAS -- do you think this is going to be a successful formula? Or should people just stick to Scotch?
DB: Oh no, it's completely necessary to move to NAS because of the stock situation. Speaking to somebody just the other day, they were like, "why didn't they make more whisky." And well, Japanese whisky was in a 25 year decline. There was no evidence--other than exports beginning to pick up--no evidence the domestic market was going to suddenly click into life. The Massan drama -- that was somebody's idea. Nobody could have anticipated that the entire world wanted Japanese whisky at the same time. I think the NAS is an inevitability of that.
What has always impressed me about the way that Japanese distilleries approached NAS is how they're trying to make a whisky that is as good as--if not better than--the whisky it's replacing. I wish I could say the same in Scotland, where we've had a similar situation. Not as extreme, but similar situation: a squeeze in stock. A lot of the new whiskies simply weren't passing muster. If you look at the Nikka range, it's really good quality whisky, if you look at the NAS that Suntory have brought out, it's really really good quality. And it's been explained a lot better. It's not an issue as far as I'm concerned.
WR: Final question! So when we say "Japanese whisky" -- Japanese law doesn't really...
WR: define "Japanese whisky."
DB: That is the biggest issue.
WR: You touched on this briefly in your book, I think you mentioned a conversation with Yoshikawa-san. There's been a bit of movement on the industry side as well. If you were to define a "Japanese whisky," where would you start?
DB: Has to be made in Japan.
WR: Made in Japan. They're still importing barley, importing yeast...
DB: Well, no, the whisky has to be distilled in Japan. In Scotland we can still import barley. Barley is really expensive to grow over here -- that's the whole reason for imported barley. But yes, it should be distilled and matured in Japan. The Scotch whisky regulations are an extremely good framework. I know all of us are gonna go, "ugg, we wish we could do this," but the bottom line is that they work. And Scotch whisky has kept its good name and its integrity as a result.
It's getting really worrying what's happening with whiskies that say they're Japanese, including in the export market, because nobody knows anything about it. People are just slapping labels on it and shipping it out. You've got shochu getting marketed as rice whisky in the States, and it's the biggest issue facing Japanese whisky at the moment. It has to be sorted as soon as possible. The indications that I'm getting is that there is a working party, all the distillers are working together, they've understood what the issue is, so in the next couple years you're gonna have a set of laws. Which is great!
WR: I appreciate your time!
**Portions of this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Whiskey Richard is the founder of nomunication.jp, and has been saying he has lived in Japan for ten years for the past four years. He enjoys drinking basically anything except straight-up Campari.