Tag Archives: WhiskyBrother

The land of the rising dram

Whisky, big in Japan.  Japan, big in whisky.  Patrick Leclezio separates his mizuwaris from his oyuwaris.

Whisky geeks have been on it for a while, but now it’s starting to explode in the mainstream.  Japanese, if you can get it, is the hottest thing in whisky.  And it’s been due for some time. Bill Murray memorably introduced (most of) us to it in 2003’s Lost in Translation: “For good times, make it Suntory time”.  After all when some paranormal publicity is required who you gonna call? Since then Suntory and Nikka, both the company and brand names of the two leading players, and their flagship single malts, Yamazaki and Yoichi, have rapidly established themselves in our collective consciousness, with the smaller marques following in their wakes.  Demand has grown to fever pitch, but with South Africa low on the list of supply priorities, the stuff is thin on the ground.  I wanted to know more and try more before writing this piece, so I sought out the country’s leading Japanese whisky distributor (and expert) Hector McBeth, to tap into his voluminous knowledge of the subject…and to sneak a few drams from his private stock.

Stranger in a strange land.  Five words that sum up the origins of Japanese whisky.  A Japanese man living and studying in distant Scotland in the early twentieth century.  A curious Scottish tradition taking root in Japan shortly thereafter.  These are the two intertwined threads, epitomising the unifying magic of whisky, that precipitated this industry.   Its watershed moment though came much later, in 2008, when Yoichi’s 20YO and the Suntory Hibiki were awarded the titles of world’s best single malt and world’s best blended whisky respectively by Whisky Magazine, one of the most credible of whisky authorities.  A deluge of awards have followed.

The face behind the liquid and its success, is somewhat inscrutable.  In fact Japanese whisky is a study in contrasts.  On the one hand there’s extreme rigidity.  The model and the basic techniques, and hence the flavours, are derived from Scotch.  I had always held out that the one tangibly identifiable feature distinguishing its whisky from others was the use of Japanese oak (mizunara), inserting the incense notes that are identifiable in some of its expressions.  Hector disavowed me of the notion, confirming that the proportion of these casks in any vatting or blend is minimal.  It’s a nice story, and it’s sometimes apparent (in Yamazaki in particular), but on the whole it’s not significant.  There just isn’t enough of the stuff (the wood).  Adding to its limitations, the various distilleries, already few in number, by and large do not trade stocks outside of their parent companies (of which there are fewer still), hence restricting the variety of product that’s available for vatting and blending.  This is a traditional convention, profoundly fixed in the Japanese ethic of company loyalty.  The result is a set of institutions that can appear deeply conservative, unimaginative and cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face inhibiting.

Then there’s the other hand, the contrast.  Paradoxically the same issues that have constrained Japanese whisky seem also to have driven it forward.  Starved of variety, Japanese distilleries began producing it for themselves.  A Scotch distillery will typically only produce one type of new make.  In Japan individual distilleries began experimenting with different barleys, different malting methods, different yeasts, different stills, and different distillation methods, to produce a wide variety of different single malts.  Bamboo charcoal filtration has been introduced.  High quality single malt has been made in a Coffey still. Necessity as they say is the mother of invention.  The narrow parameters of their setup – the adoption of the Scotch paradigm, the cultural issues – seem to have stimulated rather than restrained innovation – producing spectacular results.

The real impacts remain implicit rather than explicit.  It’s difficult to point out visible, significant distinguishing features.  Whereas other territories have made their mark with radical departures, the Japanese have made small tweaks, focusing on execution of the details.  Their work with yeast is supposedly industry leading, to the point, Hector tells me, that they legally register their strains.  My take-out is that they have taken vatting and blending to greater levels of dedication than anyone else.   Ireland and North America have their own very distinct styles.  Scotch is bound to provenance.   Japan is all about using their human resources to make the most of their limited physical resources – in whisky as in everything else really.  This is particularly evident in blended malts.   A neglected sector elsewhere the Japanese have embraced it, recognising and exploiting the extra dimension that it offers.  I’ve often maintained that blended malts have all the intrinsic advantages of single malts, and then some: they go beyond by providing the blender with an extensive palette of varying liquid, resulting in vatted potential that is undeniably superior (at least theoretically).   The Nikka portfolio in SA is a case in point: Nikka Pure Malts Red and Black, and the Taketsuru Pure Malt, along with Nikka from the Barrel, a high malt blend, being the most prevalent.

The industry has gone about things its own way, assiduously keeping the faith.  What it lacks in macro it has doubled in micro creativity, as growing legions of fans can bear witness.   If you’d like to be in that number, then march over to either Kyoto Gardens or Bascule Bar in Cape Town, or WhiskyBrother in Joburg, South Africa’s most assured purveyors of Japanese whisky.  May the dram be with you.

Sidebar:

Mizuwari: whisky with water and ice, served in a tall glass and stirred 13 and half times.

Oyuwaris: whisky with hot water, a custom that was borrowed from the drinking of sochu (the indigenous Japanese spirit).

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As it appeared – p1.

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As it appeared – p2.

Whisky heaven

This labour of love, the first of its kind, offers a whisky experience beyond that of just shopping.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2013 edition).

As it appeared - page 1.

As it appeared – page 1.

As it appeared - page 2.

As it appeared – page 2.

 

It’s rare that I lament being in Cape Town rather than Joburg. Recently however I experienced one of those moments, because my brother in whisky (and yours), Marc Pendlebury, opened South Africa’s first dedicated, speciality whisky store.  Located in Hyde Park Corner shopping centre (Hyde Park, Johannesburg) this gem of a shop is a mouth-watering development for local whisky lovers.  Marc is best known on the whisky scene as WhiskyBrother, one of the most established and prolific South African whisky bloggers.  I caught up with him long distance to ask him about the venture and about his whisky journey.

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When did you become passionate about whisky and how did it happen?

I was a “whisky drinker” for several years before the passion took hold, which was about 8 years ago. It began when I received an 18yo Speyside single malt. It was unlike anything I ever had drunk up and it sparked my curiosity and a desire to understand how and where the differences arise with regard to flavour and whisky styles.

What’s been the most magical moment on your whisky journey?

I’ve shared many memorable moments with various whisky friends quietly savouring a pour of something spectacular, but my trip to Islay a few months back definitely qualifies as the most magical. The whole island is shrouded in whisky magic, and to have had the opportunity to meet the people behind the wonderful Islay malts and taste whiskies directly from the casks in the warehouses was a moving experience for a whisky geek like me.

WhiskyBrother was originally (and still is) your blogging persona.  How did you come up with the name?

Knowledge is a life-long pursuit, and as a whisky enthusiast I am continually learning and experiencing new aspects of whisky every day.  I didn’t think that I qualified for a moniker like Dr Whisky or Whisky Guru. The brother extension was about showing my intermediateness, as well as the camaraderie I so often find among my fellow enthusiasts. Also, I thought brother was much more approachable and accurately reflected my personality.

Can you share with us a bit about your background and your life away from whisky?  What are some of your other pastimes?

I like to keep busy, so it’s a constant challenge to try to balance my work and personal life. I’m currently finishing my MBA – I probably should have done so before starting on the shop but you can’t keep a passionate idea supressed!

Time with my family and friends is important to me. I’m a bit of a news, tech and social media junkie so I’m often flipping through the various news channels/sites/magazines or engaging on various social platforms. I also play touch-rugby once a week and try squeeze in a run, gym session or walk in the park with my dogs whenever time allows.

Tell us about that moment (or perhaps it was a process) when you decided to pack it all in to start a whisky shop.

It was very much a process! As a serious enthusiast I wanted to frequent a store that specialised in whisky, and so, about five years ago, I thought it would be something great to create, if the time came and it still didn’t exist. Well the years passed and no store appeared, so in mid-2011 I considered it more seriously and started playing with the numbers and scribbling business plan ideas. One thing led to another, and once I was successful in raising the capital in early 2012 it was full-steam ahead.

You stock an extensive selection of whiskies and whisky-related items.  What are some of the highlights?  Is there anything that’s particularly special to you?

My first highlight is the extensive collection! Seeing so many brands under the same roof is a special sight to behold. If I had to name a few of which I’m particularly fond, I would have to include: Macallan Fine and Rare 1989 (the only one in the country), Dalmore 1978 31yo, Glenmorangie Pride (now sold) and Glenfiddich 40yo.

Apart from these more exclusive and limited items, I am equally pleased to stock the ranges from smaller, independent producers including BenRiach, Springbank, GlenDronach, Kilchoman, Compass Box and Michel Couvreur.

What makes the WhiskyBrother store different from other liquor speciality stores that focus (albeit not exclusively) on whisky?  What can whisky lovers expect that would delight them when they visit your store?

The fact that it is strictly whisky, and only whisky. Whisky is a specialty drink and it deserves a specialty store. The store was built intentionally to showcase the amazing whiskies available and the design has included many components of whisky production and history – from the use of copper and untreated oak staves, to the presence of used whisky casks and images of distilleries.

Next would be the large selection on offer. It’s not about only stocking the big brands with the big marketing budgets. I’d like to think all whiskies are equal on the WhiskyBrother shelves; it is up to the consumer to decide on preference. I have as many brands and expressions as is available in our market, as well as a whisky or two you won’t find anywhere else in SA.

Lastly, a specialty store must provide specialty service. I am personally working in the store for the foreseeable future. The whisky consumer deserves to be assisted by someone who has solid whisky experience and can recommend, engage and inform.

My intention is to provide an experience, not just retail whisky.

What’s on top of the list for your next whisky adventure?

I’m currently organising a group tour to Scotland (and plan to make it a quarterly activity), and I’m working on getting a cask bottled that I personally selected.

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Nice guy, great whiskies, impressive store.  Get over there and check it out.  May the dram be with you!