Awards & Events

Big in Japan

Whisky Live Japan goes from strength to strength and is getting weirder as it does so. Marcin Miller mixes it with Tokyo's finest
By Marcin Miller
A good cocktail is all in the shaking, as one Tokyo bar owner took great delight in explaining to me during my recent visit to Japan.Exactly the same ingredients, shaken in the same quantities but in different ways, can either come together in a delightful marriage, greater than the sum of its parts, or fail miserably as each element fights for control.Put together nearly 20 distillery managers, whisky writers, brand ambassadors and private bottlers, add the haunting tones of Islay’s most famous chanteuse, and the result is equally unpredictable. Fortunately the Whisky Magazine cocktail shaker was in fine form on the day.As soon as panellers were led out into the Opening Seminar to the strains of Stayin’Alive, participants knew they were in for something a little different this year.The impending retirement (what, again?) of the ever-popular Iain Henderson provided a wonderful opportunity for the assembled gentlemen to honour, praise, or in Jim McEwan’s case, outright abuse him, and was that really Bowmore’s Christine Logan, complete in full geisha outfit, carrying out a giant Laphroaig warehouse birthday cake?This year was bigger than last, with over 1,000 participants on the day choosing from a series of 16 Masterclasses, but, more important than the basic statistics was the quality and unique nature of some of these sessions.In an attempt to satisfy what is perhaps the most demanding whisky audience anywhere in the world, this year’s programme included a joint session by Dr. Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie and The Macallan’s David Robertson on wood management, no less than five independent bottlers comparing drams in an ‘Independents’ Day’ class, and Talisker’s Alastair Robertson pairing the Classic Malts with a line-up of sushi.Competition amongst the panellers to produce that something special was very high after the exceptional Brian Morrison Masterclass last year.The Glenlivet introduced cask samples and an example of the Cellar Collection range, Springbank’s Euan Mitchell offered cask samples of the cult Longrow and the as-yet unreleased Hazelburn, but the honours remain with Bowmore, whose Kenneth Mackay offered tastings of not just one, but all three of the new 1964 releases. Perhaps the most ambitious venture and certainly the most historical, as anyone who knows the traditional suspicion with which Japan’s ‘big four’ have viewed each other will testify, was the ‘Ultimate Japanese Blending’ class.Kirin, Suntory, Nikka and Mercian were each invited to submit two of their whiskies from a list of eight different types, comprising six single malt styles and two single grains. These were then distributed amongst the group and a blender from each company came up with his ideal blend from these eight ingredients.The resulting four blends were bottled in 100ml bottles and distributed to each of the 165 Masterclass participants. Each blender in turn was then given an opportunity to explain the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ behind his blend, with Whisky Magazine’s Michael Jackson providing his own judgements and insights.Live in Tokyo very much centres on the Masterclasses, but this takes nothing away from the Producers’ Tasting Room. This year there were 35 booths, including an entry from Suntory for ‘the longest bar in the world’ competition! Participants had the opportunity to taste many, many rare and limited products, as well as the regular products from each company.The Whisky Magazine shop did a steady trade in back issues Michael Jackson’s books, Norma Munro’s CDs, and a special bottling of 27-year-old Caol Ila to mark what is now the fifth year of the magazine.After nearly 10 hours of dramming, everyone ran out of steam a little at last year’s closing seminar. This year it was decided it would be better to have all of the panellers let their hair down a little by finishing with a Whisky Party.Against a backdrop of an old back-and-white video of Whisky Galore!, more than 300 people mingled with our whisky guests, entertained first by Otoe-san and her saxophone, and then by Norma Munro, who had flown out all the way from Islay especially for the occasion.Norma had the stage to herself for the first half of her piece and mesmerised the audience with her delightful vocals, but the panellers were determined to have the last say and, led by a certain ‘Laddie, stormed the stage.‘Norma and the Whiskymen’ are unlikely ever to get top billing at the Tokyo Budokan, but what a climax! It is doubtful if Flower of Scotland or Loch Lomond have ever sounded like this, or ever will again, but it was clear at this stage of the evening just how harmoniously those disparate cocktail ingredients had come together.The only way to cap this was a giant rendition of Auld Lang Syne; a perfect finish to an educational, sociable and fun day of whisky. Our thanks must go again to the staff of Aoyama Diamond Hall, who must already be dreading next year’s event, and to Virgin Atlantic Airways for their generous draw prize and their smooth transfer of many of the panellers from the United Kingdom to Tokyo.And, of course, a big shout out to the Whisky Magazine Tokyo Massive: David Croll, Noriko Kakuda and team, without whom none of this would have been possible.