Do you eat many potatoes in Scotlando?” As a conversation opener it was up there with the very best. The fact that it came from a geiko who had just christened me Antonio and was now ordering a round of tequilas just elevated everything to new surreal heights. To cap it all, the soundtrack to this unlikely scenario was being provided by Sidney Devine, indisputably Scotland’s worst ever country and western singer.But, even though this was only my second ever night in Japan, I was beginning to realise that in this country the absurd is never far away. The tequila, I hasten to add, was her idea not mine, though I could be partly to blame for the escalation into total weirdness.I’d been quite happily drinking Bowmore until I spotted a bottle with a skull and crossbones on it, which turned out to be an Italian liqueur of such fearsome strength that it sends your liver to Hades and your mind to another planet.I’d made her try it, so the tequila was her revenge. Even then, another Japanese myth had been exploded. I mean, geikos aren’t meant to drink tequila, are they? And surely they’re not meant to hit you either? Even in a playful manner. Maybe it was a sign of affection.“Is all of Japan like this?” I asked the publishing director. He nodded, and quickly asked for Sidney Devine to be taken off as he could see I was about to do an impromptu Glaswegian karaoke when Sid started murdering Your Cheatin’Heart.Whisky eh? Strange stuff. Does odd things to people. Breaks down barriers. Adds a new layer of absurdity to life until you collapse in laughter at the sheer ridiculous wonder of life.There was something about the fact that Sidney was warbling that seemed important. Did Torii buy the CD because he naively thought it was authentic Scottish music?Did he realise its awfulness and have it as a joke? Or – and by this time maybe the tequila and Italian death drink were kicking in – maybe it was subtle Japanese post-modern irony. After all, if he was wanting to recreate an authentic Glaswegian pub this was pretty accurate – apart from the geiko and the ambassador of course.Attention to detail. That’s the key to the Japanese approach to whisky. But just as you are relaxing, believing you are back home in Scotland, something so weird happens, some detail just jars ever so slightly that BANG!, you remember you are in Japan.Very Zen, that. I mean, you think it can’t get any stranger until you walk into Osaka’s Harbour Inn which is, well, Bowmore’s Harbour Inn. Then you realise there’s no one wearing dirty blue overalls and wellies and there’s no fighting. Oh, and Michael is allowed in.This relentless pursuit of authenticity, this obsession if you like, is what elevates Japanese whisky bars to a different league. It struck me that there’s probably more authentic Japanese restaurants in Scotland than there is great whisky, which is either sad or ironic. You decide.This passion for whisky came across at Whisky Live Japan itself, which, I confess, wasn’t what I expected. I mean a young, hip audience which seems to be split 60:40 between men and women. People who were crazy about whisky without being anal about it.
Jimmy Russell, the Buddha of bourbon, hosted a seminar at the event which started with rye and, somehow, ended up with the Japanese audience drinking rye, bourbon, Irish and Scotch. Here was the world family of whisky at work, a true manifestation of how a simple drink can break down national boundaries, bridge cultures, challenge convention and bind people together in a spirit of not just interest, but fun.