By Christopher Coates

Opinion: Calling time on postcolonial attitudes in the whisky scene

Asia is reshaping the world of whisky — and that's a good thing.
The narrative surrounding Asia’s love affair with whisky – and by Asia I mean the entire continent, not just East Asia – is truly something to behold. Over subsequent decades and across generations, curiosity grew into enthusiasm, then reverence, and in turn deep understanding. This understanding has evolved into entrepreneurship and it seems a year doesn’t go by when a new whisky distillery isn’t opened somewhere in this vast continent.

Of course, to speak of Asia as one homogenous block would be ignorant to the point of absurdity. Each nation has its own distinct take on whisky, which covers preferred flavour profiles, serves and production methods. A few distil spirits which, though sold as whisky either domestically or internationally, really are not – yes, I’m looking at you two, India and Japan – but these generally also sit alongside true whiskies of the highest quality.

Regarding East Asia particularly, I do notice something peculiar about how the narrative surrounding both the appreciation and production of whisky in key markets such as Japan, Taiwan and China is framed in the West. Whether consciously or not, the relationship between Western whisky-producing countries and those nations is often talked of as being ‘one way’ – the West developed the production methods and makes the whisky in its own way, the East consumes the product and, in some unfavourable tellings, copies the method to make its own imitations. I strongly believe that, at best, such a framing can only spring from a rather narrow and callous understanding of both the history and the contemporary market situation. At worst, it reflects postcolonial attitudes best left in the past, which should be challenged whenever and wherever encountered.

For instance, when discussing the origins of Japanese whisky, the story is told of how a young Masataka Taketsuru, who would grow up to be the father of his nation’s whisky industry, came to Scotland in 1918 to study and learn how to make both malt and grain whisky. This is certainly true and one need only take a moment to read the recently published translation of his original report, On The Production Methods of Pot Still Whisky, to comprehend that he did indeed learn much during his months based at Hazelburn Distillery in Campbeltown.

However, those most familiar with the facts also have good reason to believe that the young man likely shared as much knowledge as he received. Coming from a sake-producing family and having diligently studied both fermentation and chemistry, he approached whisky making as a scientific practice, not an agricultural one. Contemporary photographs show he once turned up at Longmorn-Glenlivet wearing an ankle-length lab coat, demonstrating an expectation that the distillery would prioritise hygiene (it did not). Another story tells of how he received blank stares after asking for a microscope, so he could inspect the yeast. To what extent Taketsuru instigated a shift in Scotland toward whisky science must be researched further, but what’s certain is that the interplay was anything but one sided.

The same can be said of modern industry trends. After more than half a century of the ex-bourbon barrel reigning supreme, sherry casks are once again in great demand. It’s a shift that, though seemingly modern, is taking whisky back to the roots of its earlier maturation styles. To say that most of Asia, from the subcontinent to its most far-flung archipelagos, has a taste for sherry cask-matured whisky would be an understatement. To deny that this preference, and the seemingly limitless commercial opportunity it represents, is helping to drive the Western whisky industry, especially the Scotch and Irish categories, back toward investment in high-quality sherry wood would be foolish.

Similarly, demand in many Asian nations for non chill-filtered products, higher ABVs, and quality packaging has instigated huge changes for Western distillers – most often, change for the better. It’s true that Asia is reshaping the world of whisky, but as an equal partner from which the West has as much to learn as it does to give.