People

The state of Japan

For this issue's round table we hand over to Dave Broom, who recently hosted a live debate in Japan with representatives of three leading companies. This is his summary of that event
By Dave Broom
You probably know that the Japanese whisky industry is somewhat different to the Scottish. Given a business culture which is highly focused on loyalty to the company there is little chance of Japanese distillers exchanging stock, staff and information as their colleagues in Scotland do.This autonomy has meant that traditionally there has been little interaction between the master-blenders and distillers from Suntory, Nikka, Kirin and Mercian.Whisky Live! Tokyo has however tried to change this state of affairs. Two years ago the master blenders from the four firms appeared on the same stage and made the first-ever Japanese blend, using each others’ whiskies.This year three of them were back on stage, this time to share their thoughts on the current state of play in the Japanese whisky market. This groundbreaking talkshow was chaired by Dave Broom.Q.What is happening in the Japanese whisky market? Do you think there is such a thing as the new whisky drinker and what are they drinking?KO: My starting point is that recently in Japan, younger people have been drinking neutral spirits such as shochu.This certainly hit the whisky industry, but when you consider the ingredients for shochu can include barley you can discern a trend towards single malt. I think we need a whisky which is very easy to appreciate by the new generation and new drinker who has started on shochu.SA: From our point of view, our starting point was when we investigated the market and what the new consumer wanted. My aim has always been to produce a whisky which is easy to drink and can be consumed during a meal and at Nikka we have found that recently our most successful whiskies have been clean, unpeated, and at a low price.Interestingly though, we are also seeing development at the top-end of the market as well.KI: For me, the consumer began to change during the wine boom. They could understand the difference between wineries, regions and the varieties of grapes and I’d say that this range of different flavours is suited to the Japanese palate and sensibility. This, I believe, can be translated into the world of whisky.The new Japanese consumer not only has an interest in whisky, but the differences between them, where they are from and how they are made. At the same time, I agree with my colleagues, there is a need to rethink what whisky is: create well-balanced, easy-drinking whiskies.Q.There is an assumption that whisky firms are reacting quickly to the changing needs of consumers,yet it takes many years of research and then aging to produce a ‘new’whisky.How do you approach this?KO: There is always a interesting dilemma when you are a whisky maker.One should never compromise on quality and I would also argue that we should also maintain the traditional methods for making whisky, but on the other hand we must continue to innovate! This means, for me that tomorrow is always more important than yesterday.We will continue to innovate, wood is of particular interest, but all of this takes time. It might take five or 10 years for a project to appear on the market, but we are continuing to discover how best produce a wide variety of whiskies.It can also come down to investment.For example, we stopped making whisky at the Yamazaki distillery for two years (1987 and 1988) during which time the distillery was renewed. I would say that this has helped the quality of the 12 year old to improve significantly – it’s now got a very high reputation.SA: I agree. It takes time to make whisky. This runs counter to today’s trend for instant gratification, but time is all part of whisky’s charm. It can take a decade to discover if a project has worked in the way we thought it should. Sometimes it may not work... but we always have to try!As a blender you have to be aware that you’re making whisky for a generation of drinkers, that it is your responsibility to make people love your whisky.Interest in Japanese whisky is growing.For me, therefore, it is important that Nikka’s whiskies reflect nature, culture, spirit and history. Yoichi has these elements and it is this which people here and abroad – especially in France – are particularly interested in hearing about.KI: Our starting point, 32 years ago, was a simple one: we should try and make Japanese whisky. We then investigated what the consumer wanted so rigorously that people said that our firm would go bankrupt! We started making soft and fruity whiskies which met the Japanese taste for easy-drinking whisky. Today, the style has become lighter (see Distillery Focus p.32 for details on this). My aim is to continue to refine and perfect this method of production.As for what people are drinking. Well, I would say that our consumers’ tastes have become increasingly diverse and they all have their own preferences. So, while we can now make very clean and fragrant whisky – to suit the Japanese culture – after 32 years there is a lot of stock which we can access which consumers have never seen.DB: Outsiders might be surprised at the consensus shown today: the need to attract a new consumer, a desire for lighter, food-friendly but individual whiskies. The desire for premium quality.These men realised this years ago... we are the ones who are catching up.