Kampai Samurai: Stefan Van Eycken, Japanese whisky

The Kampai Samurai interview series brings together experts in Japanese whisky, sake, shochu, beer, gin, and other categories to explore the breadth and depth of Japan's drinking culture. Click here to see other entries in the series.

The first ever Kampai Samurai is one of the Japanese whisky scene's biggest names, Stefan Van Eycken.

Based in Japan since 2000, he was a contributor/editor of nonjatta.com from 2009 to 2017, where he led the site to become the great resource that it remains today. He is also closely associated with Whisky Magazine, being the regional editor (Japan) for Whisky Magazine UK, as well as a contributor for Whisky Magazine Japan, Whisky Magazine France, and other global publications. Since 2012 he also sits on the Japanese panel for the World Whiskies Awards, and in 2013 he launched the now famous Ghost series of hand-selected Japanese whiskies. Bi-annually he also puts on the charity event Spirits for Small Change to benefit underprivileged children in Japan.

His book Whisky Rising: The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan was released in Spring 2017. Since then, it has been translated into both Traditional Chinese and Japanese.

Needless to say, if it involves Japanese whisky, Stefan is not very far away.


WR: In Whisky Rising: The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan, you wrote about how you first became interested in Japanese whisky. But this was after you arrived in Japan. What attracted you to Japan in the first place?

SVE: I ended up in Japan by accident, to be honest, so I don’t have any riveting stories of a childhood interest in some sort of aspect of Japanese culture. While studying and teaching at the Edinburgh University Faculty of Music, I applied for a Japan Foundation Fellowship, thinking it wouldn’t even be considered as these were well-remunerated and aimed at senior researchers, but I did and so I came to Japan to study Japanese contemporary (classical) music for one year. During that year, various things happened in my personal life that I don’t want to bore you with, but long story short: twenty years later, I’m still here and loving it.

WR: It's been over two years since the release of Whisky Rising. Can you tell us about the impact the book has had on the public and for you personally? Given even more new whisky distilleries have popped up since its release, can we expect a revised edition in the future?

SVE: The book is a distillation (no pun intended) of a decade and a half in the field, talking to people here in the whisky business, and though it cost blood, sweat and tears – because this was all done in the margin of my “other lives”, i.e. my full-time job in education and family life – in retrospect, I’m glad I gave up my freedom for half a year, while writing the book. It’s not like I get heaps of fan-mail, but people do reach out to me – in fact, this very morning, someone sent me a very nice message on FB and asked me for some advice – so the great thing about having done the book is that it’s out there, people seem to enjoy it and I’ve met a lot of really good people, because of the book. I also do get invitations to events around the world, but because of my regular day job, I can’t always make the best of those – but such is life.

The original English version of the book was published in the spring of 2017. Then, in the fall of 2017, there was a translation published by a wonderful man called Michael Hsieh, who is based in Taiwan, and I added a chapter to that. He published a second edition in Chinese, for which more updates were added. Then, in the beginning of last year, when Shogakukan approached me to have it translated into Japanese, I spent countless hours preparing more updates. To answer your question – can we expect a revised edition in English – the answer is: unlikely, for two reasons. First, a philosophical one, I think rather than do an update after a year or two, it’s better to let the book stand as a snapshot of the industry anno 2016, and then write another book ten years later (or re-write the entire middle section, which is about all the distilleries) so that it really shows how things have changed in the intervening ten years. Publishing books is an arduous undertaking for all involved, so rather than have a snapshot with a few years in between, with the new version making the old one “obsolete”, I think it’s more interesting to have Whisky Rising stand on its own, and then have something else ten years later that will also stand on its own. The problem with updates is that there is so much change in the Japanese whisky field that: a) you’d need to constantly revisit distilleries and get the updates and b) the moment you publish the “new version”, there would already be new changes. One of the Hombo Shuzo guys was saying to me at a festival: “Stefan, your book is selling well at our visitor centre, but it’s already out-of-date with regards to our distillery,” and that’s the Japanese edition which just came out in November of last year and was perfectly up-to-date then!

Now, the more practical reason why there won’t be an update any time soon, is – and people don’t believe me when I say this, but it’s the truth – I haven’t made a single yen off the book. Not to moan, but no expenses were paid (and in fact, I had to pay some expenses specifically for the book – like paying photographers etc. – out of my own pocket), my royalties are so lousy that my miserable advance (2,500USD, if you want to know) isn’t even covered yet, and this is with the book in three languages, selling well, and having put in a massive amount of time, both on the original version and subsequent translations. My Japanese translators felt sorry for me: one of them got payed a multiple of my advance for translating half of it, and the other person had an expense account (which I was very envious of) that made the process of visiting bars and distilleries much more pleasant than mine, where I was paying for every last thing out of my own pocket, knowing I’d never see any sort of return. So, I can really say, hand on my heart, that it was a labor of love. Now, am I keen to do more work on a project that, as one friend kindly put it, is “the screw-over of my life”? Not, really. In a way, my annual updates to the Malt Whisky Yearbook are a good supplement to Whisky Rising, and I write lots of articles for Whisky Magazine (UK, France and Japan), some of which end up online after a while.

I don’t want to create the wrong impression. I love the book – and I’m very self-critical by nature, so even I am surprised by that sentiment – and I love the feedback it’s gotten, but I am not a fan of working for free, let alone of losing money. It makes it very hard to justify to my wife and two kids, as you can imagine.

WR: About those new Japanese whisky distilleries. There have been several different approaches taken to fill the gap between when a distillery goes online and when their whisky reaches a >3-year maturity. Some we've seen make gin, some import whisky and age/bottle it, some do owner's programs, and some charge a premium for relatively immature new make. Others are well-funded and can afford to wait. Granted, each maker has different business and financial circumstances. But for you personally, which approach(es) do you prefer, and why?

SVE: Let me answer this in a roundabout way. I am a huge fan of Daftmill distillery – both the whisky and the ethos – which, for those who are not familiar with it, is a ‘new’ distillery in the Scottish lowlands. Well, “new” in terms of market presence, as they just released their first whisky last year. The point is that they did so 12 years after starting! They didn’t just pay lip service to that dictum of “waiting until it’s really ready” which all new distillers use – and then apparently, in most cases, it’s ready after 3 or 4 years. No, these guys really walked the talk. Now, as one Scottish distiller told me, “not everyone can afford to be a Daftmill”, and I get that, but unless I am an actual investor in a distillery, I don’t see why I should be concerned, as a consumer, with the financial reality of running a distillery. What I mean by that is: if a farmer in my neighbourhood sets up a dairy plant and it takes a huge investment to do so, am I really going to say “ok, I’ll pay crazy money for my milk because I love what you do and the quality is great, and I know that you’re paying off a mammoth loan to the bank”? I’d pay a little premium, sure – for quality, to support a local business and so on – but not crazy money.

I work in education and I have two kids of my own – and being a product of an old-fashioned, stiff upper-lip kind of educational environment where positive reinforcement came in very small doses – I am a firm believer in doing the opposite and being encouraging and supportive, but there is such a thing as being too supportive. What I mean by that is: if anything and everything my kids do is greeted with uncritical support and praise – is that really in their best interest? So, if a new distillery is trying to sell me some in-progress product for the price of a bottle of Oban 14 or Talisker 10, then I say: can’t blame you for trying, but no thank you. I’ll try it at a PR event (cause that is what in-progress things should be, promotion for what’s to come). Japanese whisky is so hot now that as someone put it to me recently, you could put cat pee in a bottle and it would sell for lots of money. A far cry from the days – and I’m talking 10 years ago not 50 years ago – when people couldn’t care less about Japanese whisky in Japan. That was uncritical (as everyone knows now, because they feel: I should have bought all that Karuizawa, and those Suntory Owner’s Casks, etc.), but so is jumping at every single release in an unreflecting way, whatever the price asked for.

So, to answer your question: I was talking to a bartender who’s been pouring whisky for over 4 decades and we found we had exactly the same opinion of the current situation, which he summed up beautifully. He said: I’m supportive of the establishment of new distilleries as that means more diversity in the future – more potential masterpieces – but I’ll put my money where my mouth is in ten years’ time, when the whisky can speak for itself (and if you’re charging a fair price, which is something we can talk about for hours, but I think we, i.e. whisky drinkers, all know instinctively what is fair and what isn’t.)

WR: Are there any regions of Japan, or distilleries of the new wave--let's say post-Chichibu--that you're especially interested in? Kagoshima prefecture, for example, is becoming something of a hotspot for both whisky and gin.

SVE: I’m very interested in what’s happening at Tsunuki distillery, and of course – having just visited the second Chichibu Distillery and written about it for Whisky Magazine – very keen to follow the progress of that enterprise, but a distillery that really impressed me was Yuza Distillery. I went there, asking all the usual questions – will you be using local barley? what about local mizunara? unusal cask types? etc. – and they said: “we’re not thinking about those things at all at the moment. What we want is to focus on making a good spirit and age it and patiently wait.” In other words, a very traditional outlook, and that may seem to run against the current of the times, where – or so distillers think – consumers always want something novel and unusual. Something else I like about their approach is that they’re not trying to sell anything – whether it is actual in-progress products or a brand or consumer attachment or what have you – at the moment. You don’t see them at festivals and I think that’s a good thing. There is something to be said for that old proverb of not selling the bear’s fur before hunting it. Beethoven didn’t premiere bits and pieces of his symphonies to get audience feedback. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I’m a fan of people who put in the work in the quiet of their working space and sell the product when it’s ready, even if it takes years. I’m active as a composer so these are not just empty words – I apply that ethos to myself, too.
Now, to get back to Yuza Distillery, of course, anything can happen – all it takes is for a new manager to come with ideas of his own and to do what everyone else does – but I hope Yuza can be the new Daftmill here in Japan. Just get on with the work, don’t fish for people’s support (either financially or emotionally) continuously while the process is in progress, but offer it with pride and confidence when it’s ready.

WR: Speaking of Chichibu Distillery, they hit the 10 year mark recently. The brand recognition and riotous demand is already there. On the supply side, their new distillery is supposed to have five times the capacity of the current facility. Do you think they will remain "craft," or will they be competing with bigger names in the ultra-premium market?

SVE: I think they are already ultra-premium! Either you have the very rare chance of scoring a Chichibu single malt bottling (single cask or limited edition) at retail price in Japan, where it’s still reasonable, and you’re holding something that is worth 5 times the price the very same day on the secondary market, or you buy it in foreign markets (where retail prices are getting very high for the relatively young whisky it is) or on the secondary market (where prices are batshit mental), and you need very deep pockets. The Chichibu craze is driving by a relatively small group of hard-core fans who don’t care how expensive it is, they just need to have it, and with single cask releases where most of the time you have 200 bottles or so, there are 200 people out there who feel that way – and increasingly more, because of the flipping potential – so as a regular drinker, you are fighting a lost battle. Will the new distillery solve that? I personally don’t think so. First of all, it will take at least half a decade for the whisky of that distillery to be ‘ready’. And secondly, it will just allow Ichiro to stockpile more of his ‘older’ vintages for future releases of longer-aged whisky (which is a very smart thing, of course). Some people, naively, are waiting for the first Chichibu 10yo official release, thinking that is going to solve the supply issues. I think they’re in for a big disappointment if they are expecting it to be as available as a Talisker 10. That’s just never going to happen.

WR: There are so many new players making new distillery announcements that it can be difficult to keep tabs on them all. Do you expect this onslaught to continue? Or are we close to hitting peak Japanese whisky?

SVE: I think it will continue, to be honest. In the old days, the investment was huge and you could only expect a return a decade or more later. Now, in the new post-Chichibu climate and with everyone thinking they can be the next Ichiro, you can recoup your expenses pretty quickly. So, as long as you have a little bit of money lying around as a business (and, as you have announced in recent times, business completely outside the drinks field are joining the whisky distillery boom, too), it’s not too hard to set up a distillery and get money coming in almost instantaneously. Whether all these distilleries will survive in the long-run is a different question… but I’ve long given up trying to predict the future when it comes to Japanese whisky.

WR: Where do you see Japanese whisky in 5 years? In 10 years?

SVE: I think 5-10 years down the line, we will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, but whether the good stuff will be available for purchase – just like it was easy to get the cream of the crop 10 years ago – is a different question. I used to drink lots of Japanese whisky, because I live here and high-quality stuff was available everywhere. Now, I drink mostly Scotch because it is almost a full-time job and requires inordinate amounts of time networking to get your hands on a bottle of (invariably young-ish) Japanese whisky - and to be quite honest, I would rather spend that time on more valuable things: family, friends, leisure... So I hope that 10 years from now, I’ll be able to easily purchase high-quality Japanese whisky again for an affordable price, but that may be wishful thinking. I’m not complaining though – at least I lived through the good years and have a stash that will last me a lifetime – so I’m happy to drop out of the rat race. And you have to remember, in the glass, a whisky’s nationality is irrelevant. There’s only good whisky and better whisky and that can come from anywhere in the world.

WR: Hypothetical scenario: you are personally responsible for writing a revised Japanese tax code that legally defines "Japanese whisky." What points do you include? What if you could also revise labeling requirements?

SVE: In terms of production requirements, I would include: 1) the fact that it must be made in Japan, from mashing to bottling; 2) I would include a minimum age requirement (3 years); 3) I would regulate the equipment (no more ‘whisky’ made in stainless steel shochu stills); and 4) implement a minimum abv of 40% for whisky. Labeling is very tricky as some people don’t actually use the word ‘Japanese whisky’ on the label but the use of traditional Japanese iconography and the use of kanji etc. screams ‘Japanese’, so that would be something for experts to regulate, because if production is more tightly regulated, you would need to regulate presentation equally tightly, as otherwise, opportunistic producers will just keep finding loopholes to exploit.

WR: Ghost #9 was a 3-year from Eigashima. Compared to the rest of the Ghost series, it is significantly younger. Was this an outlier, or provided they meet your requirements, will you be open to including younger whiskies in the series going forward?

SVE: Ghost #11 (Mars Komagatake, Tsunuki-Aging) was also a 3-year old… A sign of the times. The Ghost Series was started at the tail end of the golden age (from the consumers’ perspective), and I was lucky to be able to bottle some beautiful Karuizawas, Kawasaki and Hanyu but nowadays, we have to be realistic: bottling Japanese whisky with big age statements is a thing of the past. That said, the Ghost series was always meant to show the quirky side of Japanese whisky (history), so the Eigashima fits in – as it’s matured in an ex-sake cask, which is unusual. Obviously, quality comes first. The only good thing about the younger Ghosts is that more of them get opened and drunk! The next one coming out, at the end of the year, will be a 10-year old. But I don’t expect many of those to get opened.

WR: Every bottle of NAS that's made potentially deprives a maker of whisky that could instead hasten the return of an age-statement whisky. On the other hand, "the spice must flow." How do you feel about the NAS trend in Japanese whisky?

SVE: When talking about NAS people conflate two separate debates: 1) whether age is an indicator of quality (it isn’t, of course, even though most people given the option – blind – of receiving a 5 year old bottle of whisky or a 25-year old one as a gift, will happily take the latter), and 2) transparency of information and, tied to that, pricing. I get so tired of hearing producers say: “this is NAS, because it allows us to use younger whiskies in the mix, in addition to older ones, so that we can create a better product”. Yeah, sure. Of course, you would say that. But what are you charging me for? Quality is a subjective indicator, so you can’t say: well, we are charging you for what we think is superb quality. Of course, you would say that, as a producer. I think NAS has the bad rep it deserves because of marketeers using the absence of information (no age statement) as a tool to charge you whatever they want, without you, as a consumer, having any sort of yardstick to ascertain that the pricing is fair. And then, the circular discussion goes back to: “oh, but surely you are not saying the higher the age, the better the whisky.” It’s all a game of smoke, mirrors and red herrings and people on both sides of the debate can just go on about this until they are blue in the face. Personally, I like to make informed decisions about how I spend my hard-earned cash so if someone is expecting me to shell out a lot of money for a NAS, they’d better come with some convincing arguments.

2 Comments

  1. Thor Helgason

    This was a very entertaining interview. I check this website every day hoping that a new article is up and am always delighted when there is. Thank you for your efforts!

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