Interview With Brian Ashcraft On “Japanese Whisky – The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit”

Any lover of Japanese culture has read something by Brian Ashcraft. Personally, I follow his seasonal anime guides on Kotaku, but he writes on everything “Japan”. Tattoos, recent trends, politics, robots, you name it and he’s probably covered it. So, I’m glad to chat with him about his most recent book on an important part of Japan’s culture. Whisky.

Ashcraft has entered the booming industry of Japanese whisky with his new book “Japanese Whisky – The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit.”

Based in Osaka, Ashcraft travelled across the country, aided by well-known figures in Japan’s drinks industry as well as other locals, photographers, and producers. He visited the distilleries, spoke to the people behind them, and went above and beyond to unearth new information in the Japanese whisky industry.

Personally, I found the book very informative and a good addition to the growing number of books on Japanese whisky. Ashcraft’s book is one that adds to the industry and delivers facts that many have never heard off. Now a local in Japan, this is an insider’s view of Japan and its whisky culture. But, I don’t want to give away too much! Instead, let’s look at the author’s journey. From writing the book to his observations on the booming whisky industry in Japan, here is Brian Ashcraft.

You’ve been a leading writer on Japan, covering topics from anime and video games to culture, tattoos, and travel. Is writing about whisky new for you?

For me, this marks a return to drinks writing. Back in 2005, I wrote a feature for Wired Magazine on absinthe, profiling the research of Ted Breaux, founder of Jade Liqueurs. The article helped spotlight Breaux’s work, clearing up misconceptions about the drink, and it helped, in a small way, absinthe become legal in the United States. Since then, as you kindly point out, I’ve written about an array of topics, but this is my first foray into the written world of whisky. I moved to Japan in 2001 and began writing professionally starting in 2003 on an array of topics: Japanese tech, pop culture, robots, politics, new trends, Japanese industrial design, anime and video games, food–you name it. The core of what I’m mainly writing about, however, doesn’t change. Ultimately, that subject is Japan. Viewing Japan from different angles, I believe provides a way to get a deeper understanding of the culture. That’s why I wanted to show the connection between Japan and its whisky, as well as unearth new information and insights that haven’t been published before. I wanted this book to be as much about Japan as it was about Japanese whisky.

What made you decide to write a book on Japanese whisky?

With this book, there were several things I hoped to accomplish. First of all, as I mentioned previously, I wanted to unearth new information. For example, why is it “Japanese whisky” without an e? The common answer is that the influence of Scotch whisky has caused the Japanese to write “whisky” instead of “whiskey.” My research showed things were not that simple! There are historical reasons for it that predate Taketsuru.

Honestly, if you are just digging up online search results, there’s no point in doing a book. If you are asking people to buy your book, it’s paramount that you try to add to the conversation. There has been a spate of Japanese whisky books recently, which I think is great. Can you imagine living in a world in which there was only one book on Scotch? Varied voices help brush aside the misguided notion that Japanese whisky is just a passing fancy or a trend. This is an important whisky tradition, worthy of extensive research and study. I think everyone brings their own unique skill set to the table when covering Japanese whisky, and I wanted to contribute by furthering that understanding.

I also wanted to do this book, because my adopted hometown Osaka is the birthplace of Japanese whisky. Suntory is an Osaka company. Even though Masataka Taketsuru hails from Hiroshima, he was educated in Osaka and got his start here before working for present-day Suntory. Settsu Shuzo, the drinks maker that sent Taketsuru abroad was also an Osaka company. The Yamazaki Distillery is, depending on traffic, 30 minutes from my house. All of this history is tangible. So Japanese whisky has always felt like a topic that hits close to him. Yet another reason was, well, I like Japanese whisky. I wanted to better understand what exactly was Japanese about it. All of this was the start of my journey.

Tell me about the “journey” of writing Japanese Whisky – The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit.

When I was pitching my book on Japanese tattoos in 2014, I also pitched this book on Japanese whisky. It seems like ages ago! But doing these books takes time, so after I finished my tattoo book in 2015, I threw myself into this current project. I feel like each book influences the next, and all the research on Shintoism and Buddhism for the tattoo book, for example, actually was invaluable for understanding Japanese whisky. I think Japanese whisky’s religious element hadn’t been explored as deeply as I would’ve liked, which is why I really wanted to write more about it in this book and show, for example, whisky-related Shinto ceremonies that people really haven’t seen before.

Besides interviewing the famous blenders and distillers, I wanted to find people who aren’t typically heard. I wanted to talk to people who knew Taketsuru, for example. I wanted to talk to people who grew up around these distilleries. I wanted to find Kihei Abe IV, the son of the Kihei Abe, whose company sent Taketsuru to Scotland. I wanted to know about the time period between Commodore Perry’s arrival and the introduction of American whiskey and Taketsuru’s trip to Scotland to learn about Scotch whisky. That period in Japan fascinates me.

Japanese whisky’s history isn’t that old. There are still people who are alive who worked closely with these iconic founding figures. When we were planning the book, we wanted to find people to tell us what it really was like during these formidable years of the Japanese whisky industry. One person the book’s photographer, Idzuhiko Ueda, met by chance while shooting in Yoichi and who I then interviewed for a double page profile was Tatsujiro Shimamiya. He started working at Nikka in 1943 as a 14-year-old boy! While the men were off fighting, women and kids were working at Nikka. It’s how it was at that time.

I also wanted to talk to people who make the casks, including some of the country’s most accomplished coopers. I often feel with whisky books in general, coopers don’t get featured as much as they should. How do they work with mizunara? How exactly do they cut it? How are they using other unique woods? I wanted to know how Japanese whisky makers thought their whisky represented Japan. How they did or did not think their whisky was different from Scotch and for those who have worked in both countries, how the experience compared. I also was interested in how yeasts are used in Japan, and how those techniques are related to techniques used in making sake. Obviously, sake making and whisky making are different, but depending on the distillery, there is some overlap in the thinking behind the approach as well as similar techniques used.

I didn’t want to take anything as a given. Question everything! When I wanted to know about Japanese barley and Japanese peat, the big companies would say using them wasn’t necessary or, more likely, too expensive. Maybe they’re right, but in the past, these were standard parts of Japanese whisky, but have since been phased out. I wanted to know why that happened. Recently, there are attempts to bring them back. I wanted to know about that history and the impact they made on the final whiskies.

I love working with others. From the start, my publisher wanted me to do the book with Japanese collaborators. I was blessed to be able to work with a talented photographer in Ueda-san, who even pulled double duty with research. I thought that Japanese collaborators were key, especially for the tasting notes. If you grow up eating Japanese food, your baseline flavors are different than if you grow up in a different culture, eating other types of food. Of course, Japanese people don’t only eat Japanese food all the time and do enjoy a wide variety of food. However, as I’ve seen with my own kids, the baseline flavors and textures are different. The foods of memory are different. The comfort foods are different. Don’t get me wrong, I am not discounting the reviews or tasting notes of people outside Japan. I think those insights are equally as important, and I am not putting one group’s impressions over the other. Instead, I thought that a Japanese person doing the tasting notes might, perhaps, open up further insights, especially regarding what flavors, aromas, impressions and memories are evoked. Because of that, I felt like it would be interesting to collaborate with Yuji Kawasaki. I had long admired his blog and how he was an independent voice.

Based in Japan, it must have been easier for you to get your research done. What were some of the difficulties you faced along the way?

I would imagine things were easier. Obviously, there is a difference between living–or having lived–in Japan and only having experienced visiting Japan. It’s totally different. But, if you don’t live here, then you have no choice but to visit! And that’s not a bad thing, and there’s a proud history of travel writing about Japan, which I think is an important tradition. But living here meant that we had an easier time visiting places and could go back when necessary to see different parts of the process or even see different seasons, which certainly impact the whiskies. I think it also meant the book could avoid the pratfalls of shoehorning in Japanese culture that wasn’t actually related to Japanese whisky. This isn’t another culture, but the culture in which I live and am raising my three Japanese kids. For me, there are natural cultural connections that, perhaps, require a certain cultural fluency. I wanted to focus on those.

Living in Japan simply gives you a greater grasp on Japan. It also provides you daily humility as to how much more you need to learn and how the rest of your life will be spent on that quest. But without a doubt, an understanding of Japan will give you a deeper appreciation of Japanese whisky. Now, I do believe enjoying Japanese whisky requires no knowledge of Japan. Nor should it. However, understanding the culture and language in which it’s created does open Japanese whisky to even more enjoyment. Language helps you peel back those layers. Hopefully, it also helps you avoid misinterpretations or misunderstandings or shoehorning. To understand the culture, you need to be able to talk to people.

Knowing the language means I can walk into a distillery and interview people in Japanese and pull aside anyone and start chatting with them. Again, I think this is invaluable. George, as someone who has lived here and knows the language, you would probably agree! Anyone who lives here or who has lived here and covers Japanese drinks culture would, too. Knowing the Japanese language not only makes interviewing easier and more fruitful but also you’re able to research the topic in a much more rigorous way. If you’re writing about the culture, it’s paramount.

I believe the Japanese language is deeply connected with Japanese whisky–and not just simply because there is Japanese calligraphy on the labels. Rather, the way calligraphy is written and what that expresses seems to me to be emblematic of the thinking and emotion found in Japanese whisky.

As for difficulties, production of the book was actually fairly smooth. Thankfully! Everyone we interviewed was incredibly generous with his or her time as well as with their knowledge and insights. I am incredibly grateful.

I know tastes change constantly, depending on one’s mood, mine do! So, right now, which whisky are you enjoying the most? Also, where would you recommend visitors drink whisky in your local city of Osaka?

It’s starting to warm up here in Osaka, and I’ve been feeling like enjoying a more floral single malt, so my go-to has been Miyagikyo. Soon, though, it will be perfect highball weather. I don’t know about you, but the vibrancy of spring makes me want to drink younger whiskies!

If you are in Osaka, go to One Shot Bar Keith in Shin Osaka. It’s one of the few Japanese whisky specialty bars in the country and has tasty-looking food, too. Bar Keith’s owner, Yamamoto-san, is very much a classic Japanese bartender and truly loves Japanese whisky. They have a Chichibu house whisky, but also serve Nagisa Beer, an excellent Japanese craft beer, and their fruit cocktails, made from domestic produce, are also tasty.

After writing this book and delving into the category, what do you think the future holds for Japanese whisky, amidst the rising prices, skyrocketing demand, and lack of aged stock?

First of all, I hope we’ll see fewer faux Japanese “whiskies,” which appear to be white liquor, brown dye, and Japanese calligraphy on their labels. It seems like every week I go into the supermarket, there is a new Japanese “whisky” on the shelf.

I like shochu, but I don’t think Japanese whisky can be made from rice. That’s shochu, which has its own wonderful and important tradition, so I wish people would stop trying to pass off shochu as Japanese whisky! Moreover, mugijochu (shochu made from barley) isn’t whisky either. It’s another important and delicious drink, but it’s not Japanese whisky. I think Japanese whisky has a much greater flexibility than other world whiskies, but it’s important to have a better understanding of what exactly should be considered Japanese whisky. And no, simply buying Scotch spirit and aging it in Japan does not count.

For the most part, I think many of the whisky makers, Nikka especially, have shown considerable skill dealing with the lack of aged stock. I’m sure it’s made life for them difficult at times, but the NAS single malts from Nikka are so skillfully done. That being said, we’ve seen some interesting releases in the past year or so from the big makers. Honestly, I feel like we are in a holding pattern until late 2019, when we’ll start to see what’s coming for 2020 when the Olympics are held in Tokyo. All the complaints about a dearth of aged whiskies should hopefully be rectified by the 2020 releases. However, I imagine they will come at an even heftier price. Start saving now.

In the meantime, I am very excited about what we are seeing from the newer kids on the block, especially Akkeshi, which looks more and more promising. Akkeshi has taken their time in their approach, and it seems like they’ve really thought through things in a rather lucid and compelling way. I’m excited to see what the future holds for them and all the other new makers.

I really feel like Japan having more whisky makers–and especially ones that are interested in swapping stock and having better relationships with each other–is a breath of fresh air. So much of Japan’s whisky history has been dominated by large companies, which have produced excellent whisky, but it’s created a closed environment and bitter rivalries. I feel that’s starting to change. Thank goodness for that.

There you have it, the journey of writing “Japanese Whisky – The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit.”

The book will be released on May 29th, but pre-orders have begun. Order your book here for a fresh perspective on the industry we all know and love.

Happy Easter!