We all have our obsessions. Some have more than others. One of mine is always carrying a number of books, no matter how short the trip. They’re not necessarily read, but they act as a sort of comfort blanket.The selection usually comprises a novel, some non-fiction and a volume of poetry. Something to cover different moods. In Japan, part of the portable library was a translation of Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North which was to prove strangely apposite.Basho was Japan’s greatest haiku poet, the man who liberated a heavily-mannered style of verse, creating in its place one where the human and natural world became one.“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn of the bamboo...” he wrote. “Your poetry issues of its
own accord when you and the object have become one.”The nature of haiku is one of concentration. We tend to think of it in terms of rules, whereas it is a form which in a deceptively light fashion shows the beauty found in the everyday and the mundane, though as Basho’s work demonstrates, this apparent simplicity actually hides a deeper, spiritual truth.The Narrow Road is his greatest way book, part travelogue, part haiku diary, and today we were travelling in his footsteps, to Nikka’s Sendai distillery situated in the foothills of the mountains which lie a 45 minute drive west of the city of the same name, itself a two hour bullet train ride north east from Tokyo.Basho arrived in Sendai on 4th May 1689, “the day we customarily throw fresh leaves of iris on the roof and pray for good health.” He spent a few days in the company of the artist (and fellow poet) Kaemon who escorted him to the plain of Miyagino, “where fields of bush clover were waiting to bloom in autumn...”.Now it was autumn. The mountains on either side of the road rose like worn down teeth, the low sun making the trees glow in multitude of shades: russet, ochre, beige, fawn, with an occasional blaze of crimson as if a maple high in the forest had caught fire. We pulled into the distillery, a massive, neatly landscaped site, the huge distillery buildings and warehouses divided by small woods, enclosed by mountains. We took the path which leads to the Nikkawa river which arcs around its edge.
It was this river which drew Nikka’s founder Masataka Taketsuru here. A three year search for a new distillery site had brought him here to the hills of Miyagi Prefecture, (the reason why the single malt is also called Miyagikyo) a place of hot springs and waterfalls. According to company history, he tasted the water and proclaimed it good. It’s an attractive, possibly apocryphal story, but what distillery doesn’t have a creation myth attached to it? In any case, how could anyone fail to be thrilled by this setting? If any of us had a chance to build anything here we would.Scarlet maple leaves floated down the stream spinning in the eddies, children screaming with laughter by the river bank. Large tents had been erected, the start of a local autumn festival the centrepiece of which is the making of a specific kind of potato soup. Timeless.The more I discover about Taketsuru the more he intrigues me. Earlier that week, I had looked through his notebooks with Shigeo Sato, Nikka’s master blender. Meticulous, neat, they tell of his travels around Scotland, the entries interspersed with photos of distilleries such as
Hazelburn in full production.They are a greater, more in-depth documentation of the state of Scottish malt distilling in the 1920s than virtually anything which exists in Scotland.Ironic that you have to travel half-way across the world to find out what your own country was like. If only they were translated.That Scottish experience never left Taketsuru – it was behind the siting of the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido [WM issue 34] – and undoubtedly influenced the selection of this site in 1969. Sendai has grown since those early days, its two major expansions have added a grain plant to the original malt distillery: the former containing linked column stills (for pure alcohol) and two Coffey stills.Typically, these make more than one style of grain, not just ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ styles, but an intense, estery all-malt distillate, a malt/corn mix and a creamily oily corn.The malt plant contains two lauter mash tuns (a six ton and four ton) and while the regime generally specifies crystal clear worts, cloudy is also collected.Different yeasts will also be used and put to work in 22 stainless steel washbacks where fermentation will normally take 72 hours. Scottish malted barley is used, both non and lightly peated.The stillhouse contains four pairs of big, wide-bottomed stills with boil bulbs, fat wide necks and short tube condensers. Currently the malt distillery is operating at around a third of capacity – 200,000 lpa.The 18 (out of 23) warehouses in use contain barrels, hoggies and butts. In addition, there is a cooperage for repairing casks and recharring/recharring.Can we glean much from all of this? It’s clear that a fruity/estery spirit is the signature style (the clear worts, long ferments and the big stills are the giveaway) but that the different peating levels and different yeasts allow Sato-san to play variations on that theme, while those cloudy worts means some malty spirit is also produced.Sendai has the flexibility common to all Japanese distilleries, a complex mish-mash of ingredients, techniques and approaches.But is that all there is to it? A definition by equipment? Are we not missing what makes Sendai different?We walk through a small clutch of trees on the way back from the warehouses,talking of how the wood mix has changed in recent years from European to American, of why the sherry butts are only ever stored two high as this is an earthquake zone, of how the maturation profile is different here to Yoichi.As soon as my feet touch the ground an aroma rises: an intense perfumed note of pine needles, sap.Later, in the tasting it reappears, a flash of memory. Logically it is aging in American oak which is producing this, but my mind trips back to that moment walking through the wood.Nosing creates a map in your mind, connects disparate memories into a chain of links, fuses present with past. It allows you to wander through your memory, gives you signposts, markers on the mental route through the liquid.This is what links liquid with place, the vital visualised connection, the grounding of the elusive in the real world of memory. Now, whenever I taste Sendai I’ll think of autumn colours and pine woods.Then there are the images in a five year old single cask of the persimmons which glow like tiny lanterns on the trees, of fresh peaches and flowers in a 10 year old, before those pine needles, spices and by now caramelised peach run through a 15 year old single cask.Back on the road, we drive past a love hotel. These are places which guarantee complete discretion, where lovers can go for an hour or a night, where you pay for your room without even seeing anyone. It all sounds great until you realise that the building has a stonking great neon sign saying LOVE HOTEL!!!!!!! on the roof.That apparent paradox is very Japanese somehow, something Basho would have approved of.Soon after, I catch sight of a small bamboo shrine on the side of the road.It’s somewhere where few people would ever stop, this being a country where things appear to always move at maximum speed. All that could be made out was a statue. Was it Basho?I ask Nikka’s Naofumi Kamiguchi, who seemed surprised to hear the name.“No young people know his works these days,” he said sadly.That’s like saying that Burns is unknown in Scotland, but when you dwell on that for a minute you realise he’s been rendered into a few clichés: haggis, neeps, a mouse, red faces, whisky; which say nothing about the man or his work.He has been reduced to nothing, which also sounds like something Basho would have appreciated, but isn’t.Haiku is about directness, a lack of artifice. As the 20th century master (and notorious sake drinker) Santoka said: “it is the deep breath of life.”It is, if you like, the essence of poetry and is therefore vitally simple and clear. Haiku therefore is like distillation: both are about concentration, dealing with essences, each deal with small sips which then reveal big flavours, hidden layers; they contain complexity within an apparently simple process.It is like the single black bean in its little foil cup which was served to us in our lunchtime bento boxes; a single bean of such exquisite flavour that we just had to laugh out loud.The best whiskies have it. Sendai has it.