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Europe is lucky, it has Marcin Miller, and without him there might not be much Japanese whisky on the continent. Marcin Miller is the co-founder and owner of Number One Drinks, a worldwide distributor of fine Japanese whiskies such as Chichibu, Hanyu, Kawasaki, Karuizawa and Mars. He used to be Editor and Publisher of Whisky Magazine, then one day in 1999 he boarded a plane to Japan.
Japan enchanted Marcin; the people, the food and the drinks. Despite being an editor of a whisky magazine, Marcin had seldom had the opportunity to try Japanese whisky when he landed in Japan. He was immediately blown away by the quality of the local variety; what a shame he thought, here was a country with whisky of such high quality yet most people in the West had never even tried it. Someone had to change all this, and it might as well be him.
In Tokyo he met an Englishman named David Croll who runs a successful whisky distribution company in Japan. In 2004 Marcin left Whisky Magazine to start his own business, he contacted David again and the ball started rolling. They founded a company called Number One Drinks and began to send Japanese whisky from smaller, independent producers to the UK to distribute in Europe, starting with the Card Series of single cask bottlings from the closed Hanyu distillery.
On a buying trip to Japan, immediately after tasting 69 cask samples of Karuizawa at the distillery, it was apparent the site was no longer in production. His curiosity piqued, it became clear that Kirin Holdings, having bought Karuizawa, had relatively large stock of whisky with no clear idea with what to do with it. After the briefest of consultations with his partner, Marcin offered to buy the distillery. Kirin was emphatic that the distillery wasn’t for sale so Marcin suggested Number One Drinks buy the entire inventory. Some four years of negotiations later, Number One Drinks acquired the last few hundred casks of Karuizawa; a lengthy process, for sure, but one that meant the world of whisky would still be able to enjoy Marcin’s favourite single malt for a few years yet.
“I love the broad-shouldered, hairy-arsed nature of Karuizawa” Marcin said “every time you crack open one of these, you’re drinking Japanese liquid history.”
Another whisky for which Number One Drinks holds worldwide distribution rights is Chichibu; Marcin has great admiration for its owner Ichiro Akuto. Ichiro’s family has been making drinks since 1625 and his grandfather built Hanyu Distillery. Ichiro spends a great deal of his time traveling around the world, inspecting and buying casks, keeping himself updated on the latest developments in the business and so on. “He is an extraordinary character.” Marcin says “I saw him in a pub in Norwich last week, he and his team were over malting the barley which is then sent to Chichibu. He is pretty much the direct opposite of an armchair distiller! He is very, very active and all his years of experience together with the knowledge passed to him by his distilling ancestors is evident in the startling quality of Chichibu.”
On top of that Ichiro uses Japanese oak for his wash backs, has started to grow barley on-site (as opposed to just importing it from the UK), and has found a Japanese peat source. According to Marcin his whisky tastes “genuinely hand-crafted and every plaudit received is entirely justified.”
I asked Marcin what’s next for this adventurous businessman with his love of Japan, its people, food and drinks? “Japan has a lot to offer those interested in top quality drinks; we have dipped our toes into importing beer and have some very, very exciting plans in the pipeline. As I can say for now is; ask me in six months time…”