This evening was like someone had drawn my own personal venn diagram and placed me in the intersection of three circles – music, whisky and Japan.
The venue was Spiritland in the redeveloped area north of Kings Cross around Granary Square. It has been open in its permanent location for just over a year, having been a pop-up sound system around London previously. They’ve got a wonderful sounding valve driven music system and host a number of music, food and drink related events.
Dave Broom is one of the foremost writer on alcohol and as a Glaswegian, whisky in particular. He’s a lucky man. He got to travel to Japan and tour their distilleries with late legendary Michael Jackson, author of the Malt Whisky Companion (the only book that I have three copies of). Broom’s latest book “The Way Of Whisky” has just been published and the evening was intended to be an opportunity to taste Japanese whiskies matched to some music from the same country.
What’s not to love?
Broom was an engaging host, joining the dots between the various highlights of the evening, providing context and comparison with Scottish whisky. His conclusion on the last point was that the Japanese product was more transparent. Japanese whisky is huge and has been for a while. He commented that in the 70s 20 million bottles of Suntory Yamazaki was sold in a particular year in Japan alone, compared with 18 million bottles of Johnnie Walker worldwide. That is an astonishing statistic, given the relative market sizes.
The evening started with a Hakushu single malt served in a highball style with soda water and ice. Broom explained that this was used as a pre-dinner palate cleanser in Japan and the aim was refreshment.
Confession time – we had become partial to Hakushu when we were in Japan earlier in the year. It was available in miniature sizes from the wonderful Lawson convenience stores, the Japanese equivalent of a Spar minimart. The whisky was delicious and the size convenient as we weren’t carting a large bottle around with us as we travelled around the country. We had never considered trying it with soda though, which was revelatory.
Groom had chosen a track by Ai Aso from her 2004 album “Lavender”. Aso has a very gentle style (I’ve got her 2007 LP “Chamomile Pool”) and the idea was that this would be a bucolic accompaniment to the whisky from “the distillery surrounded by forest”. The complimentary effect certainly worked.
Next up was a Yamazaki whisky from Japan’s first commercial distillery, owned by Suntory. This is also a widely available bottle in Japan but still really drinkable. This was a bolder selection, a bit fruitier with some ginger and pineapple flavours going on. Broom chose some modal jazz by Mitsuaki Kanno Orchestra to match it. We found jazz to be ubiquitous in Japan, the default background music to pretty much any activity. It was even played in Kyoto’s Hello Kitty restaurant.
As we moved away from the single malts and into a couple of blends, Broom selected some tracks to carry us from the jazz bars of the 1950s into the garage band scene (or Group Sounds as it was known in Japan) of the 1960s.
First up was Maki Asakawa, a female jazz and blues singer, very much in the style of Billie Holiday. This was a deep dark chanteuse type song, very much to drown one’s late night sorrows too.
The music transported us into the Japanese salary man bar on a Friday night. Broom told us about drinking in the Three Martinis bar in Yokohama and being introduced to Eddie Ban, the leader of the Golden Cups and enjoying a night out in his home town.
This is a brilliant example of the kind of garage/beat pop that the Cups produced once they had moved on from performing cover versions for US service men. Eddie had been to the States in 1965 and came home with the first fuzz box to land on Japanese soil. Eddie left the Golden Cups in 1969 but was key to the kick starting of the heavy rock scene in 70s, that allowed homegrown Japanese groups to prosper alongside the likes of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.
The next two whiskies were produced by Nikka, Suntory’s main rival. First up was a Coffey Grain Malt, coffey being the type of still used (rather than a reference to the similarly named drink). Broom helpfully explained why blended whisky has a differing approach in Japan to Scotland. Back in Scotland, there are 125 distilleries that swap their stock to create an infinite number of blends. Whilst blends are treated somewhat snootily in the home of whisky, the distilling culture in Japan is more rigid in terms of ownership and the swapping doesn’t happen. Therefore with a smaller stock of material, the Japanese blends are more distinct.
We had picked up a bottle of the Coffey Malt at Haneda airport on the way home. This was my one disappointment in Japan. We didn’t come across off-licences as you would know them in the UK and equally we didn’t want to be carting heavy but delicate bottles of whisky around the country. I was therefore pinning my hopes on there being a good selection at the duty-free shop. Sadly there was only three bottles, one of which was the Hakushu which I loved but was familiar with and the others were Nikka blends. I bought them but was left wanting to take home some of the fabulous whiskies that I had enjoyed as we travelled around.
The Coffey malt was delicious and chocolatey with a smidgen of water added. Groom explained the role of the grain as a by-product to help the main event along in a blended whisky.
One needed to add a lot more water to the next sample, the pugnacious Nikka From The Barrel, from the northern island of Hokkaido. This packed a huge punch, similar to a cask strength Glenfarclas I’d had a few years ago – a little went a long way. The Barrel whisky was actually one of the first Japanese whiskies that I had tried, a present from my dad a few years ago.
Musically, we got into the heavy stuff too. First off was “Satori 2” by Flower Travellin’ Band (aka FTB). Imagine sipping whisky whilst listening to “Immigrant Song” or “War Pigs” and you are in the right ball park. “Satori” is from the album of the same name which Julian Cope chose as his joint number one pick in his seminal 2007 book “Japrocksampler”. He described the album as follows:
a festival of guitar worship led by axe-wielding maniac Hideki Ishima, who Jeff Backed and Jimmy Paged a number of archetypal Tony Iommisms, interlacing each Satanic riff with a more dazzling stellar lick, and invigorating every troll-like sub-basement grunt with a bazillion squarely Hindu sitar figures. The magical results were regally exultant and wantonly barbaric.
Couldn’t have put it better myself. The music matched the bulldozing flavours of the whisky perfectly, the drum and guitars rattling around the bar as we sipped our drinks.
The final whisky selection of the evening was the most distinctive. From the Chichibu distillery, this is one the whisky’s I wanted to try most in Japan and couldn’t track down. But before we get into the detail of the distillery, let’s just savour the name.
Chichibu. Chi chi boo. it is so much fun to say, just keep repeating it out loud.
There’s a lovely back story to the whisky. Owner Ichiru Akuto’s family have been distilling for 400 years making sake and shochu but the family business had fallen by the wayside and was sold off. Ichiru opened the distillery in 2004, the first new Japanese distillery since 1973. The first young whisky’s have started rolling off. In order to produce a distinct product, Ichiru has gone back to basics, travelling to the UK to learn how to malt and even making his own barrels. He has produced a set of malts based on the playing cards and a full set of 54 bottles (52 plus 2 jokers) has sold at Bonham’s in Hong Kong for $400,000 US.
The Chichibu served at Spiritland was dizzying. I loved it but my other half found it too much. It was very much like a medicinal Islay, at the Lagavulin/Laphroiag end of the spectrum rather than the more approachable Ardbeg or Bunnhabain. A little certainly went a long way.
At the moment, bottles are going for north of £100 if and when they come available in the UK but if Islay’s are your thing, they would probably be worth living on toast for a month for.
The evening finished with some Acid Mother’s Temple. This was the most far out psychedelia of the night and complemented the Chichibu’s out-thereness perfectly. We enjoyed Nick Luscomb’s DJ set for an hour or so and headed home.
Broom’s book is a thing of beauty and I’m looking forward to burying myself in it over the winter months. The evening successfully transported us back to Japan with all of our senses in overload – a fantastic Sunday night out.
“Way of the Whisky” is available here.