Man, we are loving all things Japanese at the moment. From ramen shops to British Museum exhibitions, Japanese culture is taking over. Nowhere more so is this happening than in our bars, where Japanese whisky has enjoyed a zeitgeist-level few years. Such is the demand that the reserves are running dry and age statements are being removed. In the modern bar 'do you have any Japanese?’ has been usurped by 'what Japanese do you have?’
All this in spite of the fact the product is a Japanese take on the homegrown (Celtic) product – an idea uncomfortable enough to raise a few eyebrows with the novice drinker. A large proportion of Japanese whisky is made from European barley on European made stills in an ecosystem chosen for the fact that it closely mirrors the Scottish highlands. I think it was Dave Broom who said: 'What is more Scottish – eastern European barley distilled on German-made stills in Scotland, or Scottish barley distilled on Scottish-made stills in Japan?’ Tough one.
The rye aspect makes it interesting as it takes a step out of the shadow of its Scottish barley counterpart
Yet all of this information regarding production similarities and climatic overlap is not yet prevalent in the general public consciousness, meaning none of this can be responsible for the general uptake in Japanese whisky by the consumer.
While we could attribute the success to the words of a few influential whisky writers, let’s not. How many of the drinkers in your bar know who Jim Murray is? However, the general imagery surrounding Japanese whisky aligns with our preconceived ideas of the spirit.
Whisky, on a primary level, conjures images of dark rooms, cosy seating, small groups and even solitary drinking. On a secondary level we can extend this to minimal mixing, maturity, sophistication and craft. And an outsider’s view of Japanese culture fits this snuggly, as one that embraces minimalism, respect and time-honoured traditions – much like our homegrown whisky marketing of old.
Only afterward can we add the misplaced idea of terroir. As soon as the pictures of Yoichi distillery are shown to whisky fans, with a gentle mist rising above the trees revealing the pagoda topped structures, their eyes light up with comfortable familiarity. One of the most powerful tools in sales is confirming to the consumer what they already know, and positive feelings make for positive sales.
So with this formula in mind, let me make the case for the next big thing in whisky. This year Kyrö Distillery, from the tiny village of Napue in northern Finland, will release the first of its rye whiskies. This marks an important addition to the Scandi whisky canon which, unlike its Japanese counterpart, adheres to European definitions and avoids the pitfalls of naughty Japanese unreliability and mislabelling. The rye aspect, however, makes it interesting as it takes a step out of the shadow of its Scottish barley counterpart. Imagine the lochs of Scotland.
Picture Finland’s pine-laden hills, complete with fjords, streams and wild deer. Then think of the log cabins of Sweden. It’s not a big leap. The distillery of Swedish producer Mackmyra (which is gravity fed – so bloody cool) sits deep in a pine forest, as much a part of the rural landscape as the moss underfoot. With a climate similar to Scotland, the ageing process is relatable, and the locally
grown grain will contribute to a 'sense of place’, something that consumers are increasingly drawn towards.
And, much like the surge in interest in all things Japanese, Scandi influence has grown and grown in recent years. Fika, hygge, Ikea-philia: All have entered the UK vocabulary and consciousness.
What’s more, these producers are innovating and experimenting. They’re celebrating their own sense of place. That’s something that I think we should all be celebrating too.