Diving In

bg_mainvisual_yam_002When 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 translation I like is:images

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.images-1


Chain of Sunshine Supply

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

It was George Bernard Shaw who called whisky ‘liquid sunshine’. Given the outdoorsy characteristics of two of the three key single malt raw materials, namely barley and water (the third being yeast), sunshine does actually figure in quite heavily. Both at the beginning, and as Shaw said, at the end.

A quarter of all barley produced in the UK comes from Scotland. There are winter and spring crops of barley, but only the low-nitrogen barley of the spring crop is used for whisky. Of the 1.5 million tonnes of barley produced in Scotland in 2011, over half went into the distilling process. Barley varieties are the subject of research and optimization: In 1965, a new kind of barley called Golden Promise replaced older, less tasty varieties. Since then, the advantages of Golden Promise have been augmented by new types that offer higher yields, like Optic and Chariot. As in most products, the fewer the ingredients, the more important the quality of each ingredient will be.

The production chain for Scotch whisky, from field and stream to bottle, is almost uniquely Scottish, and local efforts aim to keep that chain unbroken from beginning to end. When the demand for malting barley is low, Scottish farmers look to other crops (including other distilling crops, like wheat). When the demand is high, more barley is planted. The summer rains of 2012 prompted a rare year of importation when the local barley crop had a lower-than-expected yield. The imports came mostly from the northern UK, with a smidgen from Denmark.

I wonder if, when this whisky comes to market in eleven years, anyone will comment on the slightly different taste due to the unusual south-of-the-border and Danish barley content? Note it for discussion in your tasting calendars for 2024, please.

And here, in anticipation of the 2024 Scotch tasting and in honor of Mr. Shaw’s description of whisky, a slightly different version of You Are My Sunshine: