Commercial whisky production has been taking place in
Japan since the 1920s, but it is only during the past few years that the world at large has had the opportunity to discover the virtues of Japanese single malts and premium blends. Here Gavin D. Smith talks to a veteran of the Japanese whisky
revolution, Dr. Koichi Inatomi.
Not all revolutionaries look like Che Guevara. Dr. Koichi Inatomi is smartly and conservatively dressed in a dark grey suit. His manner is effortlessly polite; he has a sparkle in his eyes and a keen sense of
humour. He is a successful Japanese professional in early retirement.
Yet Inatomi was at the heart of the sea change in Japanese whisky making what turned a low-grade
domestic product into a prestigious drink increasingly exported all over the world, and progressively
respected for its high quality,
finesse and attention to detail.
Inatomi's working career has been devoted to what is now titled the Suntory Group, Japan's largest and most influential whisky distiller.
The Group has its origins in collaboration between Shinjiro Torii, founder of Kotobukiya Ltd - ultimately renamed Suntory Ltd in 1963 and Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru was the son of a sake distiller who enrolled as a student of organic chemistry at Glasgow University, Scotland in 1918, subsequently marrying a Scot and working at distilleries in Campbeltown and on Speyside before returning to his native land.
Taketsuru and Torii were responsible for the creation of Japan's first dedicated whisky distillery, which was established near Kyoto in 1923 and named Yamazaki. Taketsuru subsequently went on to found the Nikka distilling company, now Japan's second-biggest distiller.
According to Koichi Inatomi, "The first commercial product launched by Shinjiro Torii was 'Red Sun,' a sweet wine, which came on the market in 1907. His first whisky was Suntory White Label, which appeared in the late 1920s. It was poor quality and not commercially successful. Then in 1937, he produced Kakubin, which was mild and slightly smoky. This proved successful and is still available today." Inatomi points out that, "during the 1950s Suntory was the most pop-ular whisky in Japan, but it was made with less than 10 per cent malt, which was young, and with lots of molasses. It wasn't whisky as we think of it today. Since joining the company in 1959, I've witnessed many changes regarding Japanese whisky. The standard was quite low at that time, but then the average income in Japan was low, so that was what people could afford. The first time Japanese whisky was exported was during the 1960s and 1970s, when blended whisky was sent to the USA."
Inatomi acted as Chief Blender for Suntory from 1984 to 2000, and in addition to working with the company's single malts, he was also responsible for the creation of the super-premium blend Hibiki - the Japanese word for "harmony" - introduced in 1989 to celebrate Suntory's 90th anniversary. Ultimately, Hibiki has come to be available in 12, 17, 21 and 30-year-old expressions.
In retirement, Dr. Inatomi maintained a keen interest in whisky, and in 2003 he followed the path of Japanese whisky pioneer Masataka Taketsuru, moving to Scotland to begin an association with Glasgow University. He is currently a visiting research-er, working on the history of distilling technology in the university's Business History Centre.
In the same year that Inatomi moved to Glasgow, Yamazaki 12-year-old single malt won its first major accolade - a Gold Award from the International Spirit Challenge (ISC), and the following year, Hibiki 30-year-old landed the ultimate prize from the ISC, the Trophy. Japanese whisky was starting to be taken seriously on the international stage.
Other awards followed, and in 2008, Dr. Inatomi's studies were interrupted when he was persuaded by his former employers to take on a brand ambassadorial role, hosting master classes and presentations. 2008 was a key year for the Japanese whisky industry as Nikka's Yoichi 20-year-old won Whisky Magazine's coveted "World's Best Single Malt Whisky" award, while Suntory's 30-year-old Hibiki landed the comparable blended whisky prize. The announcement of this prestigious 'double' provided a brief media feeding frenzy, and provoked headlines about alleged 'consternation' in the Scotch whisky industry.
Although the company's first commercial Yamazaki single malt had been released in 1984, it was not until 2003 that Suntory first started exporting single malts seriously, and the high-profile 2008 award for Hibiki, following on earlier competition successes for Suntory whiskies, led to a much more vigorous internation-al marketing campaign, with Inatomi in the role of a slightly unlikely evangelist.
However, much of the credit for the healthy and re-spected state in which Japanese whisky found itself by 2008 is due to Inatomi and his team. For example, in his role as 'quiet revolutionary,' Inatomi developed a cask rotation system in the late 1980s, noting that, "casks are very important for the quality of the whisky. Without good casks you can't make good whisky."
This may seem obvious to us today, but even in more established whisky-making nations such as Scotland, the "wood policy" of, "if it doesn't leak, fill it," persisted until much the same time. Inatomi sums up the prevail-ing philosophy of Japanese whisky during his early years as Chief Blender by saying "The 1980s were the age of quality-seeking."
By this time, Suntory's Yamazaki distillery had been joined by a "stable mate" in the shape of Hakushu, located 150 kilometres from Tokyo in 1973. Hakushu was constructed in a spectacular forest setting at Yamanashi, west of Mount Fuji, and in 1981, a second distillery, known as Hakushu East, was built on the site. The original "West" plant is currently only used as a product "test bed."
Hakushu East can produce three million liters of spirit per annum and is notable for its diversity of stills, which vary significantly in terms of size, shape, and lyne arm angle. Some are direct-fired by gas, while others are steam-heated. One wash still operates with a worm tub, and the rest are fitted with modern condensers.
Meanwhile, Yamazaki now echoes Hakushu East, with three of its six pairs of stills being replaced in 2006 with new ones of varying shapes and sizes. Its maximum annual output is 3.5 million litres. Yamazaki is also home to Suntory's blending laboratory, where Koichi Inatomi spent much of his working life.