A whisky quest in Japan
“We Japanese are obsessive about what we like,” said Hiroshi Aoki as he placed a 1960 recording of Miles Davis live in Stockholm on the record player of his bar, Mauve, in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighbourhood. It was February 2012, and I had spent four days researching Tokyo’s whisky bar culture. Mauve, which seated 14 patrons with little elbow room, was the last stop on my crawl.
Aoki’s assertion struck me as a profound understatement. Premium whisky, Japanese or otherwise, is a niche drink by design, and Japan is a whisky connoisseur’s paradise. The country’s hardcore base of whisky fans view the drink, particularly Scottish whisky, with reverence. The major cities are dotted with bars helmed by whisky tragics keen to showcase their collections of rare and expensive drops. Here, whisky is often served with a ceremonial air and fastidious attention to detail.
While the Scots have been making whisky for more than 600 years, Japan’s first commercial distillery, Yamazaki, opened in Osaka Prefecture in 1923. By 2012, Japanese whisky had won numerous awards and was beginning to surge in international popularity, while Japanese drinks giant Suntory had reversed lagging domestic sales by promoting the whisky “highball”: a mix of one part whisky to three or four parts soda water. This changed a common Japanese perception of whisky as overly strong-tasting. The whisky haibōru is now a ubiquitous food pairing at izakayas, and a multitude of canned versions are stocked in Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores.
All the ports of call on my 2012 whisky bar crawl were high-end joints. At Hibiya Bar Whisky-S, I watched the spirit being poured over a hand-cut orb of ice and rotated anticlockwise 13-and-a-half times to chill the whisky. Soda water was then poured down a spoon, so as not to burst its bubbles. The most extreme establishment was Bar On in Ginza, where owner Koichi Tanigochi had 2500 bottles of single malt whisky, none of which was Japanese. “It’s not real whisky,” he said. At Bar On, I was told, “difficult or inappropriate customers” who ordered a whisky highball – or, heaven forbid, a whisky cola – were directed to other bars nearby.
By contrast, Mauve was a laid-back affair, but equally a reflection of its owner’s taste and personality. Its walls were lined with Aoki’s jazz, blues and rock LPs and about 1000 bottles of Scottish single malt. With a wild crop of grey hair, a red cravat and a penchant for smoking a pipe, Aoki – like his bar – had a bohemian air.
When I walked in about 11pm on a drizzling Wednesday winter evening, Mauve had just two customers, seated apart from each other, both in their early 50s, both dressed in perfectly fitted black suits with leather briefcases at their feet. One, who barely glanced up from his flip phone, soon left, while the other was introduced as Mr Kato, one of Tokyo’s top ad men.
Kato was soon joined by his high school friend, Yutaka Sado, a world-renowned orchestra conductor, then contracted to the Berliner Philharmoniker. Casually dressed in a striped hoodie, Sado was almost as passionate about whisky as he was about classical music. He recounted a story of how another of his best friends, a master blender with Suntory, had created a single bottle for just the two of them to celebrate their 50th birthdays the previous year. “The base was from a 1961 single malt,” he said with a smile, “and the bottle’s still at a bar called Keith in Kobe. There’s still an inch left in it. You can go and finish it off next time you’re in town.” I told him I might just do that.
Over the next seven years I kept thinking about that bottle of whisky in a bar called Keith in Kobe. Meanwhile, the world’s romance with Japanese whisky had only intensified. Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015 declared the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 to be the world’s best. Supply for many premium Japanese whiskies outstripped demand, and distilleries began to run out of aged stock.
In May this year, I found myself in Osaka during Platinum Week, a 10-day national holiday to mark Crown Prince Naruhiro’s enthronement. With Kobe just a one-hour train ride away, I gleaned an address from the internet, determined to track down the fabled bottle.
To my disappointment, my meanderings through the alleys of downtown Kobe’s Sannomiya led to an almost deserted arcade. Bar Keith Inn was closed, concealed behind a roller door. I left the arcade and saw a suited man being guided out from another small bar by a hostess. As she waited for him to disappear from view, I inquired about Bar Keith and was led around the block to a wood-panelled shopfront with two narrow windows, a wooden door and a metal plaque that read: “BAR Keith since 1999”.
Inside, the owner, Daisuke Li, in his early 60s, presided over a narrow bar with a dozen empty stools, shelves lined with whisky bottles and LPs, and a hatstand and a bag of vintage golf clubs in the corner. Bar Keith was a members-only club while Bar Keith Inn in the arcade was a walk-in bar.
It is hard to undersell the importance of business cards to the Japanese. With both hands, I presented my card between thumb and forefinger and bowed. I bowed again as I accepted Li’s card, and spent the required time to read each line. I explained I was an Australian journalist and that seven years ago in Tokyo, I met the classical conductor Yutaka Sado and his friend Mr Kato, and Sado had invited me to Bar Keith to try his special 50th-birthday whisky.
“You just missed Sado-san. He was in here last night. He and Kato-san had a falling-out and no longer speak. It’s a pity – they’d been friends since primary school in Kyoto. Oh, and that bottle is still here, right next to you,” he said, gesturing towards a small collection to my right.
Although I was sorry to hear that childhood friends had parted ways and wondered how that could come to pass, I was also stunned that the bottle was right by my elbow. I tried to keep my cool, ordered a Laphroaig Four Oak on ice and made small talk.
As I learnt, Bar Keith was not named after the Rolling Stones guitarist, but after a small distillery town in Speyside, Scotland. That evening, Bar Keith’s mood music was Mozart string quartets. Sado and Li shared a love of classical music as well as a love of whisky. The pair visited the town of Keith a couple of years ago.
After I’d finished the medicinal, intensely smoky Laphroaig, Li poured a half-dram of Sado’s 1961 blend. The bottle was unadorned save for a small wooden plaque on a chain and a plain label indicating it was a sample only – and that its alcohol content was a hefty 60 per cent.
Clearly, it was a drink to be treated with respect. The first whiff had heavy alcohol at the forefront and the first sip had lingering sweetness after the alcohol burn. The chaser of Evian water helped subdue the drink, which was probably based on a 50-year-old Yamazaki – a single malt that fetched more than $460,000 at auction in Hong Kong last year. “A little bit of sherry cask,” advised Li.
A great thrill for whisky bar owners is to show the highlights of their collection, and that night Li brought out a whisky so rare that he asked me not to photograph it. It was not the only one ever made, but one of 20 bottled by that mysterious blender at Suntory to commemorate Bar Keith’s 20th anniversary. It was a 20-year-old single malt from Hakushu, a distillery located on a forested mountainside west of Tokyo. Unlike the commercially produced Hakushu, which is aged only in bourbon barrels, this whisky had divided its time equally between bourbon and sherry casks.
I was delighted when he invited me to share a glass of this delicious drink, which was subtly complex with a hint of vanilla and a long, smooth finish. “The nose is sherry,” he said, “the taste is bourbon, but the finish is Japanese.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 26, 2019 as "Whisky undertakings". Subscribe here.