By Dave Broom

In the wrong car park?

Tokyo you expect the unexpected - most of the time
Scene: A shopping mall somewhere in Tokyo. Time: Night. The stores are filled with gangs of Japanese teenagers. Each store is playing a different soundtrack. Neon, eye-aching bright lights, the highpitched bleeping of multiple texting.In to this walks the cream of Scottish distilling, a 20- strong party of whisky-makers, blenders and marketing wonks on their way to dinner.Thumbs pause above keypads, conversation stops, all eyes turn and watch as the noble group are led up an escalator. At the top their leader, a veritable giant, says something in English. The entire group turns around and promptly descends.“The Grand Old Duke of York,” says one teenager, top of her class in English studies. Her friends all giggle behind their hands.The group now crocodiles itself to the lifts, each of which can only hold about eight people. Three loads later the group is reassembled on a small landing on the sixth floor of the mall’s multi-storey carpark.“I’m sure the restaurant’s around here somewhere,” says the leader looking behind the ticket machine. “It’s not out here!” shouts one helpful member of the party who has made a foray around the cars and found... lots of cars. The lift doors open and a large bunch of Japanese shoppers are deposited on the landing. There is considerable confusion.“Let’s try the stairs!” shouts the leader and the entire group files downwards, finally arriving outside the restaurant door via the service entrance. A good night ensues. I suppose it is a neat enough metaphor. When faced with a strange and unknown environment follow unhesitatingly the person who walks with the most authority. The trouble is that sometimes this sort of behaviour deposits you in the wrong place. Occasionally it’s best to strike out on your own.Not that any of this was a particular surprise to me. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected in Japan. It’s part of the thrill of going there.This time my trip included visits to the mountain distilleries of Karuizawa and Hakushu (of which more in a while) as well as a sake brewery. There were many other memorable moments, the most notable of which must have been Bob Dalgarno’s face when he walked into Hakushu’s stillhouse.Bob is not often lost for words, but the sight of a vast chamber containing every size and shape of still reduced the normally garrulous one to stunned silence. You could hear his thoughts though: “that’s a wash still... no it isn’t... surely that lye pipe isn’t detachable..? it is!... are these stills smaller than mine..? how many whiskies are they making???”Welcome to Japan Bob-san. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you can be guaranteed that there will be something new which makes you question everything you consider normal.Take Suntory’s excellent new brand, Hokuto (tasted issue 40) which has been filtered through bamboo. Here is a Japanese distiller using innovation in a deliberate attempt to reach a new, young, trendy, urban consumer. It has realised that image is one thing, but in order to hook the new drinker it must appeal to them through taste as well – and that in a market where blends are dying this can be done with malt.“It’s a vatted malt,” the company told me proudly. “A blend of malts, surely?” I replied.“No. It’s not a blend Dave-san. No grain. Just malt. A vatted malt.”I tried to explain about the SWA guidelines. They seemed as bewildered as everyone in Scotland I’ve talked to since the proposals were announced. They’re just going to cause more confusion is the consensus, so no change there. Though its intention was good, the SWAcommittee has led the industry up the wrong escalator and, rather than depositing us all at the correct destination, has dumped us in the car park.