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.
Today we sit down Brian Love, a.k.a. Dramtastic, founder of The Japanese Whisky Review.
This edition of Kampai Samurai is unique in that most of it was conducted not by me, Whiskey Richard, but by Aaron Gilbreath. Aaron is an essayist, journalist, and contributing editor at Longreads, His work has appeared in publications such as Harper's, The New York Times, and Saveur. Aaron's interview with Brian was originally destined for one such publication, but through happenstance and his generosity, it is instead appearing here on nomunication.jp.
BL: Brian Love
AG: Aaron Gilbreath
WR: Whiskey Richard
AG: Before the international awards, hype, and increasing demand made Japanese whisky one of the most expensive spirits in the world, a number of Western enthusiasts had started blogging about Japan's then-unappreciated whiskies. There was Clint A. at Whiskies R Us. There was Chris Bunting and Stefan Van Eycken at Nonjatta. Michio Hayashi blogged at Japan Whisky Reviews. And there was Brian Love, aka Dramtastic, at The Japanese Whisky Review. These curious, appreciative fans shared reviews, history, old advertisements, and tips about Japan's common domestic drams and the aged whiskies that have since become highly coveted: 15 year old Yoichi; Hibiki 21; drams from the decommissioned Kawasaki grain distillery; owners casks and limited bottlings made for Japanese department stores. Personally, it was these bloggers who taught me the first things I learned about Japanese whisky, and I've always felt I owed them a thank you.
Launched in 2012, The Japanese Whisky Review includes bar reports, links to international retailers, and a list of 500 Japanese whiskies that Dramtastic has tasted. Future historians will rely on this encyclopedic catalogue for research. His personal collection will make you weep with envy. But Dramtastic is the kind of passionate, democratic drinker who gave as much respect to the standard old school salaryman bottles as he did the legendary, expensive stuff. "A lovely blend indeed and can still be picked up for under Y1000," he once wrote of 10-year-old Suntory Special Reserve bottle. "Better than many a Karuizawa I've tried that sell for over Euro1000." To those growing up after the boom, his comparison may sound sacrilegious. But Brian's sipped enough to know that all Karuizawas are not good Karuizawas, and that taste should guide us drinkers, not hype.
Born in Sydney, Australia in 1964, Dramtastic lives in Brisbane and works for Australia's largest information technology company. He's traveled to over 50 countries because, as he wrote, "I believe that travelling outside of one’s comfort zone offers the greatest opportunities for personal growth and a more holistic perspective of the world." That and Australia's generous vacation time policy allows him to travel about six weeks a year. Japan remains one of his favorite destinations, and he still buys plenty of bottles. I'd always wondered what he thought about drinking before and after the boom. He was kind enough to talk with me via email.
AG: For those who haven't read your blog, can you tell us when you first discovered Japanese whisky.
BL: I became a devotee of single malt Scottish whiskies maybe three to four years prior to what I call my Japanese Whisky Odyssey, which started in May, 2009. There wasn't a lot of information about Japanese whisky at that time, but through the internet I discovered that it existed. Japanese whisky certainly did not have any sort of mainstream following outside of Japan back in 2009, and in reality, not one in Japan either. I've been leisure-travelling internationally since 1985 and had always wanted to visit Japan, so when the opportunity arose, I did a little research on where I could try some Japanese whisky in Tokyo. The name that popped up was Shot Bar Zoetrope in the Shinjuku area. It was the only bar that specialized in Japanese whisky at the time. Being only a walk from our hotel, I availed myself of the opportunity for an experience I thought was only going to deliver on novelty value. Since I was a newbie, the owner recommended a tasting set which consisted of whisky from Japan's big two whisky companies, Suntory and Nikka. Six drams (a glass of neat whisky) and a mix of single malt, blended, and grain whiskies. By the time I'd tasted the fourth dram I knew for sure Japanese whisky was the real deal, not just some weak imitation of Scottish whisky. It tasted like whisky but also had certain nuances that stood it apart. That was the start of my love affair. For myself, Japanese whisky and Japanese culture in general cannot be separated.
AG: In 2015, Nikka surprised the whisky world by discontinuing its beloved range of age statement Yoichi and Miyagikyo whiskies. Suntory recently discontinued ─ or at least suspended sales of ─ its Hakushu 12 year, and Hibiki 12 and 17 years. What was it like shopping for bottles of Japanese whisky in Japan back in 2009, before the rest of the world caught on?
BL: Now this is a fun question! I didn't really know what I was looking for at first. After that Zoetrope tasting set, stuff like Yoichi 12 and Yamazaki 12 where going to be obvious choices, but when I walked into a well known liquor store in Tokyo's Kabukicho area, I was struck by the sheer variety available at the time. Talk about a kid in a candy store, and yes, they were cheap! There was also no stock issue back in May, 2009. In this particular store they had single cask Japanese whiskies from several different distilleries. Again, I didn't know that much, so I didn't bother with those. Returning in November of the same year those single cask bottling's were still on the shelf gathering dust, so I grabbed one of each from the Hakushu, Yamazaki, and Hanyu distilleries. I paid around USD $67 for the Hanyu. That bottling would now fetch in the region of USD $4-5000! That kind of value appreciation in only 10 years! Beat that property and shares! Of course even the age statement bottling's you've mentioned now command a hefty premium. 2009 through to about 2014 were the glory years for both availability and affordability. Fun and exciting times for sure!
AG: You have described a mythic era that modern drinkers can hardly imagine. I got interested in Japanese whisky in 2006, so during my first trip to Japan in 2014, I knew the basics about Hibiki and Yoichi and all that. I didn't know much about single casks or independent bottlings or realize this was all about to end. I bought none of the bottles I saw when I walked into a Tokyo grocery store, in Ikebukuro, and they had a shelf lined with Taketsuru 12, four bottles wide and about four deep, priced at 2080 Yen a piece ─ $20. Taketsuru 17 cost $45. (It coasts a minimum of $170 now). Do fellow drinkers tell you sob stories about all the bottles they should have bought back in the glory days?
BL: I don't get a lot of sob stories about what people missed out on, because many of the people who read my blog weren't into Japanese whisky back then. Other readers would be window shoppers who may be browsing the web for a review of a particular Japanese whisky they hope to buy. Of course there is an overall lamenting of the state of Japanese whisky prices and lack of variety. Despite its greatly increased sales volumes, Japanese whisky is more niche than ever because the range available is so small. Yes, many auctions sites sell a large range of Japanese whiskies, but I suspect they mostly go to speculators who plan to sell later for what they believe will be a profit. Some of the people that were around in the good old days stocked up and others have just moved back to mainly Scotch. We are talking about hardcore enthusiasts, not casual drinker or the curious. I also think that the majority of whisky bloggers who post reviews have never bought a bottle of Japanese whisky in their life, or very little. They have survived on free samples, so while the list of Japanese whiskies they have tasted may look impressive, it is only 10-30 milliliters at a time. I may have "only" tasted 500 different Japanese whiskies but I've had thousands of drams of the stuff. The one or two specialist Japanese whisky bloggers I know who bought their own bottles stopped posting years ago, due to the cost, I assume.
AG: Why did you decide to start your blog The Japanese Whisky Review?
BL: I started to write tasting notes for Japanese whisky on the internet around the end of 2009, as I was already super passionate about that whisky by then. It was an open website where anyone could post their reviews for any type of whisky. Japanese Whisky seemed so under-the-radar that it almost felt like being part of a secret society that had very few Westerners as members, which was pretty cool. The editor of a Japanese whisky blog read my tasting notes and asked if I wanted to have them posted on his blog. I accepted and did that for a couple of years before that site went in a direction I wasn't comfortable with. I had probably written reviews on 100+ Japanese whiskies by then so decided to continue, only this time, branching out with my own blog.
AG: Describing the taste and scent of things accurately, and in a way that makes sense to others, is very difficult. Did you find reviewing challenging at first? And did you have previous writing experience?
BL: I had no previous writing experience per se. However, I was already participating in online whisky forums for a few years, where you can exchange ideas and tasting impressions, before I started writing on a dedicated Japanese whisky blog. I actually didn't find reviewing difficult, and not because I think that I have the most sensitive nose or well-developed palate. I tried to keep it simple. Most people have experienced a decent variety of tastes and smells. I made a list of categories and entered familiar foods or substances into those categories. For instance, fruits: oranges, apples, pears, apricots. This I also broken down into sub-categories such as citrus, dried, tropical. Then you have spices, candies, woods, grains, and so forth. If nothing jumps out when I nose and taste whiskies, I go through my list to see if something connects. Tasting whisky is 100% subjective, and everyone should believe in what they experience as an individual and not be put off by some of the more esoteric tasting notes they may read online.
AG: What has your experience blogging been like? Has it created a community for you? Improved your tasting abilities, or expanded your friend group, or let you access really good whisky?
BL: I've never really thought about how blogging has changed me. It's definitely a way to connect with people with the same passion, and I do think it's pretty cool that the blog has been read in over 160 countries, and no doubt it's a great way to spread the love. You certainly didn't have that sort of reach when I first starting travelling and you still posted letters to friends and family about your experiences.
Improving my tasting ability would be a story on its own as there are so many elements to what you can pick up from a whisky on any given day, or any given hour of the day for that matter. Accessing really good, or bad, Japanese whisky has been hard work and very little overall has to do with the blog. The Japanese Whisky Review is independent and self-funded so you can imagine how challenging that can be with the cost of Japanese whiskies these days. I spent a lot of time making contacts and learning how to get bottlings directly from Japan, and that was before the blog started in 2012.
The blog did connect me in a roundabout way with my Japanese whisky group here in Australia, and we have some rare Japanese whisky bottlings that we partake of a couple of times a year. I guess the vast majority of Japanese whisky would be considered rare these days. The general consensus is that anything single cask from Yoichi and Miyagikyo hit the spot with everyone in the group. The Yoichi Peaty and Salty 1989 12YO Single Cask #251224 63.3%abv we own is the only bottle I know to have a record, so that's pretty special.
AG: Can you talk more about how you made contacts in Japan to source bottles? That seems daunting and like a dream to many whisky drinkers.
BL: Apologies but that is a subject I can't go into detail about, and one I have been asked many times. While I understand you're not asking for my private contacts, the process can lead to clues so some things will remain a secret. I can say that most of the people I know who can access whisky from Japan use Rakuten, which is a Japanese online site that is used by at least a couple of Japanese distilleries, as well as third party whisky sellers. They also join sites such Isetan's (Department Store) and Shinanoya's (Liquor Specialist) online stores. They also tend to be people that visit Japan a lot and do the rounds of liquor stores and bars. Everyone who can buy their Japanese whisky from Japan has also worked very hard, and even more so in these lean times.
AG: Now that the whiskies that helped make Japanese drams famous are too expensive for the average drinker to access, it's hard for curious drinkers to explore this sensory universe the way you did. What do you say to people who are just discovering these spirits but can't afford $200 bottles of Hakushu 12 or $400 bottles of Hibiki 17?
BL: Obviously I cannot say what is currently available to buy in a particular area or what will be available in the future. In the no age statement era of Japanese Whiskies I have bought and enjoyed quite a few bottles of Yamazaki and Hibiki Harmony Master's Select (a retail travel exclusive), and of course, the never fail Nikka From The Barrel. I actually prefer the Hibiki Harmony Master's Select over the 12 year old Hibiki. A recent purchase of a bottling of Yoichi no age statement is quite an improvement over the first bottlings and much closer in style to Yoichi 10 year old. I've also had several bottles of Hakushu and Miyagikyo no age statement. The distilleries will continue to tinker with the recipe of the no age statement bottlings so it's always good to try them from year to year. The drought will recover, though it is just hard to say when.
If a curious drinker purchased no age statement bottlings of Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Hibiki Harmony Master's Select from Suntory, and Yoichi, Miyagikyo, and Nikka From The Barrel from Nikka, they will still cover a lot of different flavor profiles and probably find at least one that floats their boat.
The other thing is going to a bar that has a good range of whiskies to try by the glass. If visiting Japan, most bars offer half shots, which can significantly reduce the cost.
If I was stuck on a desert island and only allowed a supply of one Japanese whisky, it would probably not be the rarest or the most expensive, or even the one that I've scored the highest. It would most likely be the humble and relatively affordable no age statement Nikka From The Barrel.
AG: It will surprise some people that Nikka's best selling export whisky can compete with rarities like Hanyu and Yamazaki sherry cask, though I have two bottles of From the Barrel, and it really is incredible tasting. What do you think your choice of desert island whisky reveals about your approach as a drinker?
BL: I'm not sure that the desert Island scenario reveals much about my approach as a drinker. The reason I would probably choose Nikka From The Barrel is it has the right alcoholic strength for what it is, has lots of flavors, can reveal more and more with time, and is one of those whiskies that I always want a second or third dram of. There are more complex, rare, and exotic tasting whiskies, but usually one dram is enough, and certainly not what I would call session whiskies, where you might want to drink a few in an afternoon.
Going back to the first question, I don't consider myself a writer. I am simply an enthusiast who shares his thoughts online through my own blog. In the real word I try almost anything I can access or afford. I'm always exited to try new stuff! I have Scottish, Irish, Taiwanese, and Canadian Whisky, and if I am in any country that makes whisky, I try to find it. I would call myself egalitarian, even though Japanese whisky is a passion.
AG: What about your collection of incredibly rare bottles like Ichiro's Card Series and Nikka single casks: do you still sip what's left of them or are they on temporary hiatus, replaced by daily drams?
BL: This is a very good question, as it is personally topical. I have virtually stopped drinking from the rare bottles in my collection. That probably started within the last six months. I know I am very lucky to own them and to have tasted them. This does not mean I won't taste them again down the track. Eventually they will be decanter-ed into smaller bottles to enjoy when I retire. In the meanwhile, every now and again I nose them, which can be a pleasure in itself.
I still buy and try around 25-30 new bottlings of Japanese whisky a year, so that keeps me satisfied, and there are always standard distillery offerings that I can source locally. I have access to the shared bottles owned by my Japanese Whisky Club, which are purely for drinking and either fairly or very rare. We had a get together last month and opened limited edition and single cask bottles from Yoichi, Miyagikyo, Mars and Hanyu/Kawasaki/Chichibu distilleries, as well as tasting Akkeshi distillery's Mizunara Cask New Born Whisky. Not too shabby considering the current climate.
AG: With stock so low, there is currently great debate about the merits of drinking rare whisky versus collecting it as an investment. What do you think about this? After all, isn't enjoying the flavor what it's all about? The ice caps are melting too quickly to hoard all those unopened bottles as investments, never mind the looming earthquakes here on the West Coast. Sometimes while sipping my beloved Hakushu 12, I think: Drink, my friends, enjoy the aromas before the smoke from the bombs overwhelms it.
BL: Another topic that could be a story of its own. I have never personally collected whisky for purely investment purposes, and I would say that there is not a single distillery in the world that produces whisky for any other reason than to be drunk. The ice caps maybe melting and the warheads primed, but often, human beings can be shortsighted and looking for maximum personal gain in the shortest possible time. Why drink when you can profit! Whisky investing is the new gold rush! My belief is that we are often sucked in by clever marketing an unfounded hype. Why do so many rare whiskies command exorbitant prices? Most have been tasted by very few people, so if we are going on quality alone, who can we believe? People who buy for investment alone have their own agenda, and reinforcing the belief that their expensive whisky is perceived as outstanding whisky is one of them. I venture that most whisky investors don't give two hoots about the whisky itself, and many have probably never drunk it. Rarity will always have its place in whisky pricing, but in my opinion, a number of hyped and expensive Japanese whiskies, like certain Karuizawa bottlings and Ichiro's Malt Card Series aren't that good.
For those who may not know, the Karuizawa Distillery which was closed around eight or nine years ago has overall, the most expensive Japanese whiskies sold at auction. Many bottlings from that distillery sell for thousands and often tens of thousands of dollars. I have tasted over 50 Karuizawa bottling's from the early 70's to 2000's and there are many Japanese Whiskies I have tried that cost considerably less that I have preferred.
Also, I have tasted 19 bottling's from Ichiro's Malt Card Series and apart from a few, most have only scored a rating on my blog in the mid to high 80's out of 100, some even under 80/100. An example is Ichiro's Malt Ace of Spades 1st release which I gave as 89/100. You be the judge if you think 89/100 equals US$20k plus for a bottle. This is not a bag out of Hanyu Whiskies overall, I've tasted/own some rippers. Just a case of clever marketing, rarity and mystique trumping reality. A bit of trivia for those who were not around when they were first released and I'm only talking 10-11 years ago, if you had a crystal ball you could have bought the Ichiro's Malt Card Series of 58 bottles for about US$12k or less as many where under 100 and 200 dollars. The most I ever spent on a single bottle from the Card Series was AUD$350 for the Monochrome Joker which was the most expensive of the bottling's and that is valued north of US$20k now!
Special mention goes to the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 no age statement whisky that won the so called "Whisky of the Year" (as nominated by one man) and sells for thousands of dollars. It is very good whisky, but I've tasted far better Yamazaki and other Japanese whisky that cost a lot less.
With whisky it is always the law of diminishing returns. A good $200 dollar bottle of whisky is never twice as good as a $100 bottle of whisky if any better at all. To anyone reading I would say: don't get caught up on the few, rare, and expensive whiskies you are missing out on. Average punters like us can console ourselves with the absolute fact there are more great whiskies that we can afford and drink, more than we could possibly try in a lifetime.
AG: Earlier you mentioned "more esoteric tasting notes." For a few months I created a list of the most ridiculous whisky tasting notes I found online, but I had to delete it because it became more irritating than amusing. You know the kind, descriptions like: "Zested filbert skins stewed in kumquat that's been sprinkled with pre-embargo Cuban cigar ash and stored in a box made from ancient rhino ivory then left inside the Smithsonian archives for thirty to thirty-five years." If you could write a fictitious, comical whisky tasting note, what would it be?
BL: Off the top of my head, here some ridiculous fictitious tasting notes:
The ruminated spring grass from yaks living on the Tibetan Plateau in the area bordering the Helix Corridor. The droppings of civet cats containing partially digested coffee cherries. Birds nest soup. Starfish row. Ambergris. The waft first emanating from King Tut's burial chamber immediately after opening in 1923 and not a second longer. The smell of the inside of Neil Armstrong's left moon boot that touched the surface first. Mead that Friar tuck would have made if he was real. Spark plug spark from a 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. Exhaust fumes from Michele Moutons 1985 Pikes Peak winning Audi Sport Quattro. The contents of the drilling core from the Kola Superdeep Borehole. Kryptonite.
WR: Over the last couple years there has been a wave of new Japanese whisky distilleries coming online, and still more are due to launch soon. I noticed that you have indeed tried some of these new borns/new makes that are coming out -- are there any particular distilleries you are hopeful for?
BL: Firstly I'm hoping that they are all successful, even the ones who are going legit after previously palming off fake Japanese Whisky as Whisky distilled in Japan : ). The new distilleries will be aiming for their own unique house style and as variety is the spice of life, this can only be a good thing. I do have some reviews on New Make Spirit from some of these distilleries but If I was a reader, they are not something I would hang my hat on as a portent of what we might expect when they can be labelled as whisky.
For example, because of the climate Chichibu Whisky was/is a fast maturer. I've tasted 9 month old Chichibu that were as well resolved as 3-5 year old whisky from say, a distillery with a generally cold/cool climate. I have new make Mars Whisky from when they started distilling again that although showing potential, at 9-11 months old still tasted and looked decidedly new make. Fast forward and there are a number of 3-4 year old Mars that are very good indeed and most decidedly tasting like matured whisky.
The quality of the distillate I have tasted from some of these new distilleries shows promise, but there will be a myriad of factors that will effect the outcome of their first whiskies when bottled at three years old. The good thing is we can expect a number of these three year old whiskies in 2020.
For myself I think the bigger question would be, are all these new distilleries going to survive even in the medium term. All have started up hoping to ride on the coattails of the current Japanese Whisky boom. Will the boom itself even last, or for how long? When will planning, expectations and reality find a satisfying balance? Again, maybe a case of if this will ever happen for some of the new distilleries. One thing is for certain, every one of these distilleries will need to maintain 100% focus day in day out on producing the highest quality product as this is one of the only--if not the only thing--they can totally control.
WR: While I think most whisky drinkers would expect a peaty dram out of a bottle from Ardbeg, or something light out of a Glenlivet, many have no idea what to expect when it comes Japanese whisky distilleries. Granted, many of Japan's distilleries take pride in being able to create a wide variety of styles and masterfully blend the results. But given all the drams you've tasted, have any kind of patterns or styles emerged for you within Japanese whisky distilleries?
BL: Trying to be succinct, generalist and sticking with some of the working Japanese Distilleries:
- Yamazaki - Fruity, nuts, cloves and other herbs, Oriental (Incense-Sandalwood).
- Hakushu - Fresh and clean like a mountain pine forest and clear stream water. Earthy, pears, some pepper and peat (in the older age statement bottlings).
- Miyagikyo - Light and fresh fruity, nutty, honey, shellfish.
- Yoichi - Full bodied, oily, malty, cocoa, stone fruits, peat from light to heavy, nutty, marshmallows or bubblegum.
- Chichibu - Malty, earthy, toffee, nutty, pears, apples, citrus, hot spices, baking spices.
- Mars - Honey, fruity, vanilla, pepper, salt, toffee, baking spices. Sometimes peated even when not labelled as such.
- Kirin - Bourbon orange, rye spices, pineapple, passion fruit, walnuts, herbs.
- White Oak - Honey, apples, pears, pepper, baking spices. Struck match in the sherry cask versions.
WR: Above there is some discussion of Nikka From the Barrel. Ever since Nikka axed Nikka 12, there has been a lot of speculation that Nikka FTB is next on the chopping block for discontinuation/suspension. If it were to become prohibitively expensive, what is your next go-to Japanese whisky?
BL: Well fingers crossed it does not happen! Not sure there is a single next go to in these days of No Age Statement Japanese whisky and certainly where I live, nothing within 20 dollars of NFTB's price point that is as good. Quite frankly, when I can get a bottle of Suntory Kakubin I'm quite partial to a highball or four!
If you're looking at sipping whisky I enjoy Nikka Pure Malt Black, Hibiki Harmony Master Distillers and Yamazaki Distillers Reserve. In my opinion, Yamazaki Whisky is the most distinctly oriental in nature. Yoichi NAS has improved greatly since the initial offering's as has Nikka Taketsuru NAS, enough so that I bought a bottle after tasting it again at WhiskyLive a few days ago. Can any of these apart from NFTB actually be considered daily drams? Not at the Australian prices that are twice as much as some of the biggest selling Scottish 12 Year Old Single Malts. Hence my daily dram is more likely to be from Scotland on price alone.