Interview with Dave Broom, Author of “The Way of Whisky – A Journey Around Japanese Whisky”

In the whisky world, there are sources you can trust and some you should question. World whisky expert, Dave Broom, is definitely the former.

Dave started writing about spirits in 1995 and has since become one the world’s most respected spirits experts. You heard it, spirits, plural. While his career has led him down a path greatly surrounded by whisky, Dave has published numerous books, on gin, rum, and wine.

Two of his books, “Drink!” and “Rum” have won the Glenfiddich Award for Drinks Book of the Year, and Dave himself has been awarded the Glenfiddich Award for Drinks Writer of the Year twice. He was recently given the IWSC Communicator of the Year Award, and has received awards at Tales of the Cocktail, in both 2015 and 2016.

The list of his awards goes on and on, so instead, it’s best to explain a little more about what Dave does. Basically, if there’s a new distillery or whisky event happening, odds are he’ll be there, educating. Be it tasting techniques, consumer strategies, or production, Dave travels the world educating professionals and the public alike.

Over the years, his travels have often taken him to Japan. On October 5th, after a long wait, his highly anticipated book on Japanese whisky was released. The book, “The Way of Whisky”, is unlike any other on Japanese whisky and beautifully captures Dave’s personal journey through Japanese culture, and the country’s whisky traditions. The journey flows, and along the way, readers are given a deep education on Japan, its cuisine, and its whisky.

However, I won’t say too much and instead let the man himself tell you about it. Without further ado, our interview with Dave Broom on his new book, “The Way of Whisky – A Journey Around Japanese Whisky.”

You’ve written some amazing books on many different spirits. What made you decide to write one on Japanese whisky?

Thanks! Why Japanese whisky? I figured (about three or four years ago… that’s how long these things take) that the time was right for a book on the subject. There was growing international interest, my own obsession was getting greater. This whole thing of ‘what makes Japanese whisky ‘Japanese’ was an itch that I had to scratch. What was nagging away at me the most was whether it could be shown that there were links between the approach of traditional Japanese craft and that of whisky; that its whiskies were part of a wider cultural aesthetic. That’s not something that’s possible to do in an article – especially these days when magazines want them to be ever shorter! The more I thought about it, the more right (or mad) it seemed because it also opened up a new challenge – to write a whisky book which wasn’t a ‘whisky book’.  So, I did.

Could you tell me a little about the “journey” of writing The Way of Whisky, including the most fun steps along the way?

It was a physical journey and a personal one. About half-way into the three week trip, I looked at my notes and mind maps and began to try and make sense of them and see if there was a coherent narrative. I didn’t want the book to be: here’s the history section, here’s the production section, here’s the distilleries, here’s the tasting notes. I wanted it to have a flow. It was at that point I scrapped the original plan and realised that the easiest way to do it was to write the book as the road trip, starting when I landed in Japan and finishing when I left.  

The history would weave its way through the story, but not necessarily in a strictly chronological way. The insights into the whole craft/whisky element would emerge as I got deeper into the topic. The pieces on the distilleries would therefore become conversations which helped the narrative along and deepened (or broadened) the narrative. Of course, I had no idea whether that basic premise: what makes Japanese whisky ‘Japanese’ would even be proved, or whether there would not be any deep links between craft and whisky, but hey…

So, the ‘journey’ is a real journey. The most fun? Meeting Kohei Take [the photographer] who was with me from the start. He’s not only a phenomenal talent but has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Japanese food. There would always be some tiny side street restaurant we’d find time to pop into, some hidden bar. There was always time for ‘just one plate’ or ‘just one bowl’ or ‘just one highball’.   

There are so many great memories. A fantastic night on the town with the staff of Chichibu; the hilarious Michelin-starred chef in Kyoto playing tricks on us with his whisky kaiseki, the faces of the Scottish film crew when I got them to try Highballs for the first time; learning how to hand-roll tea; the moment of revelation over a plate of soba noodles and a hand-made cup; indigo dyeing with Jota Tanaka of Kirin; the always entertaining raft of old whiskies at Zoetrope; and just having the time to sit and talk, laugh and listen and learn from the masters.

I’ve been travelling to Japan for many years, but every time I learn new things. This time that was deepened enormously. So… there was a plan – we had to get from A to Z via all these points but the story evolved as the trip progressed. I think the orthodox whisky book would have been an account of visits. This was more.. fluid. New ideas and themes appeared, new questions, new sections even… and it was all fun. Hopefully that comes across.

Did you face any difficulties or challenges during the research and writing process?

No real difficulties. The logistics were slightly tricky. Working out who to visit when and creating a logical route which fitted their schedule and minimised travel time. Contacting the whisky people was the easiest but explaining what I was trying to do was slightly harder – but they got it. Finding the right craftspeople and explaining what I was trying to do was harder, and for that I was indebted to the insider knowledge of David Croll and Noriko Kakuda of Whisk-E (who also explained why some of my travel plans were simply impossible), the team at Suntory, and Take.

The writing process was a matter of wrangling all of this into shape. Of doing further research, following up, double-checking, reading, re-reading, heading off down some interesting avenues – the history of Japanese map-making, poetry, the St. Ives pottery movement.

Writing a book is never easy. You have to leave some stuff out because there are a finite number of pages, some images can’t be used even though they are phenomenal. You are always paranoid that mistakes have been made.

It was also a team effort. My publisher really got behind the idea – the care they put into design was amazing.

In no particular order, could you name your all-time favourite Japanese whisky and your favourite whisky bar and restaurant in Japan?

Whisky? No. There’s simply too many and what might be a favourite at this moment when I am writing this will be different tomorrow at a different time. That’s the point of whisky. It fits your mood. The serve, the time, the people you are with, your mood, the setting, or the season. What’s the point in restricting it to a favourite?

One bar? What!? Out of how ever many thousands? What sort of trouble do you think I’d be in with my bartending friends if I named just one? There are any number mentioned in the book. Like the whisky, the bar is one which suits your mood, where the bartender puts you at ease and serves you the right drink for the moment.

Restaurant? I have to say that Chef Hashimoto’s Ryozanpaku in Kyoto for whisky kaiseki, but my tip would be the try local specialities – tongue in Sendai, crab and sea urchin in Sapporo, miso (and eel) in Nagoya, cow intestine sashimi (that’s Sapporo again), pretty much everything in Osaka, oh and Akashi’s take on octopus balls is amazing! Pay attention to seasons as well. It’s all in the book!

What do you believe the future holds for Japanese whisky and spirits?

I think the future is looking good. The fact there are new distilleries opening is the most heartening development. It’s hard to build a global category with only two major players on the export scene. The fact that Kirin is (finally) looking to export Gotemba is great news. Of course, there is still the stock shortage and that won’t be resolved for a few years yet, but what I was most excited about was how the distillers were looking at the current situation and seeing this as being the time to start further innovations.

There’s no sense of, ‘head down, make as much whisky as we can.’ Instead, they are asking themselves what will the consumer be like in 10 years time? They approach NAS not as a necessary consequence of tightness in stock, but as an opening up of creative possibilities. They’re also leading the world in terms of grain whisky.

The one thing that does need to be resolved is legislation. Japanese whisky is so lightly regulated that it is open to any number of potential abuses which are already happening. That has to change, and quickly.  

There you have it, an expert’s journey through the mystical land of Japan, its culinary world, and whisky havens.

Dave, I want to thank you greatly for the in-depth, wonderful answers and your time. Congratulations on your wonderful book! I’ve got my copy in hand.

To all our fans out there, we’ll be offering copies of “The Way of Whisky” very soon.