When I first moved to Japan many, many years ago, someone told me to bring along a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label as a gift to the head of the household where I would stay. I thought it seemed like a very specific gift, but was assured that this was exactly the right thing to do to show my gratitude for a stranger’s roof over my head. I dutifully bought a bottle at a shop in San Francisco and carried it to Japan (yes, this was so long ago that airline passengers could carry a large bottle of whisky on board with them, just like that).
To my astonishment, the bottle of Black Label was a huge hit. I hadn’t realized at the time how important whisky was in Japan, or the instant friendship that giving a bottle of genuine Scotch whisky could inspire.
But at the time, I myself had not yet been introduced to Scotch, and I associated whiskey only with the bourbon I put in mixed drinks. So I missed a golden opportunity to explore Japanese whiskies at the source while I was living there.
One of the most famous poems in the Japanese language is the 17th-century haiku by Matsuo Bashō that goes like this:
Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto
The old pond;
a frog jumps in —
the sound of the water
According to Robert Aitken, Bashō is presenting his mind “as this timeless, endless pond”, a serenity won through persistent inquiry. In the practice of Zen, a simple incident could suddenly disclose the ultimate Way. Aitken: “As Yamada Rôshi has said, any stimulus would do — a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself.” For Bashō, it was a frog.
In Japan, apparently, this poem has become quite stale with repetition over the past three centuries. For some Westerners, it is still new. I’m guessing the situation might be similar for Japanese whiskies – well known in Japan, still being discovered elsewhere.
Suntory’s Yamazaki 25-year-old was voted the World’s Best Single Malt at the 2012 World Whiskies Awards, and overall, Japanese whiskies have been attaining new heights since their introduction early in the 20th century.
And so, today I’m heading out to one of the best liquor stores in the Lake Geneva region, the Caveau de Bacchus, in the hope that within their usually excellent whisky selection I will find a good Japanese variety. Otherwise, there’s always online.
I hope to hear the plop of a frog, the sound of water.