By Jim Murray

The whisky set to self-destruct

Jim Murray fears for the Japanese whisky industry which he believes could implode before whisky lovers sample all that it has to offer.
It is the land of the Rising Sun, home to sumo wrestling, Geisha girls, tremors, trains boasting extraordinary speed and punctuality, raw fish and, contrary to popular myth, some of the very best whisky in the world. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Japan.And yes, you did read me right. In case you didn't get me first time let me spell it out: s-o-m-e o-f t-h-e b-e-s-t
w-h-i-s-k-y i-n t-h-e w-o-r-l-d ...The trouble is, it's not just western cultures which find that hard to believe. Those with perhaps the biggest inferiority complex of them all are the Japanese. And thereby hangs a problem of Mount Fuji-esque proportions. If the Japanese believe bourbon and Scotch to be so far ahead of their home made whisky, then what chance have they in raising sufficient funds within their own companies to mount a serious bid for expansion into the export markets?And there is another problem. Neither of the big distillers out there speak to the other unless it cannot be avoided. This has much to do with a work ethic peculiar to the Japanese. Once a soul joins a company, they tend to be there for life. Or at least until made redundant. Cross fertilisation between companies is small and battles in the market place bitter.For that reason there is no equivalent of the whisky industry bodies as found in Kentucky, Canada and Scotland. So the understanding of Japanese whisky outside the east tends to be confined to the odd bottle of Suntory or chapters in books written by myself and Michael Jackson.My argument has been for some time that the Japanese should bury the hatchet. And soon. One of the main problems is people's perception of what exactly constitutes Japanese whisky. Many brands, malts included, have a percentage of Scotch within their make up. The major
problem, though, is that few actually state the fact and questions to the distillers concerned to clarify just what people are paying for are often lost behind a wall of company confidentiality.This must end. The distillers must form a body to define exactly what Japanese whisky is, as the world's other
leading whisky producing nations do. For the sake of their whisky industry it is imperative that every bottle which exclusively contains Japanese whisky states the fact explicitly. And show pride in the fact. There are only four whisky distilleries I am aware of that I haven't yet visited. Though I have, at least, tasted their whiskies. So it is from that position that I have no hesitation in naming the distillate of Yoichi among the top six in the world. Not only that, located on old volcanic land just miles from Russia, it is one of the most beautiful and fascinating to visit, with its low-slung, three cask high warehouses, and coal-fired stills. It is a name that should be on every whisky lover's lips just like Ardbeg, Talisker, Wild Turkey, Springbank, Buffalo Trace and Highland Park.And whilst Suntory doesn't have anything that quite matches, they produce some impressive malt nonetheless. So, for the sake of the Japanese industry, it would be great to see and it would make sense for distillers to dispense with the Scotch and instead use whiskies from their local rivals. If they don't, the consequences could be dire. Japan is not a cheap place to live: labour costs are high and, gallon for gallon, Japanese whisky is the most expensive in the world to produce. If left to their own markets it is likely that the distilleries - often mothballed for months at a time - will shut down for good over the forthcoming years. And as probably more than 99.8 per cent of you reading this, whisky lovers though you naturally are, wouldn't have been to a Japanese distillery or ever tasted more than perhaps three different brands, you'll have to take my word for it: that would be a tragedy for us all.