People in Japan toast fine whisky by saying "KANPAI," which is the equivalent of "Cheers" -- a sentiment Mo Rocca now seconds:
The cool air, the crystal waters, the seaside cliffs … the perfect place to make a world-class whisky. But this isn't Scotland. This is the Nikka Distillery in Japan.
Japanese whisky came to worldwide attention with 2003's "Lost in Translation," starring Bill Murray as a pitchman for Suntory whisky. ["For relaxing times, make it Suntory time!"]
But afficionados already knew that whisky from the Land of the Rising Sun was top-shelf. And just this year, Suntory won four World Whiskies Awards in London.
At the company's distillery in Yamazaki, the first in Japan, the process is age-old -- from the wash back machines where malted barley is mixed with yeast and water, to the copper stills, to the casks where the whisky spends years maturing.
And finally, we're happy to report, to the tasting with chief blender Shinji Fukuyo.
"Some Scotch whisky has a very big aftertaste, big smoky," said Fukuyo. "This whisky is very delicate."
"It's like alcoholic honey," laughed Rocca.
"Very fruity and very smooth. And if you focus on the aftertaste, a bit of spicy note still there. It comes from Japanese oak."
Rocca asked, "When you win an award as big as Distiller of the Year, the best in the world, does that make you want to get even better?"
"Still we have space to improve," he replied.
It's that drive to refine, says Tokyo-based whisky writer Stefan Van Eycken, that's helped the Japanese beat even the Scottish in competition. It is, he said, "the idea that today what you're doing and what you're making should always be ever so slightly better than what you were doing yesterday."
"Is that a Japanese characteristic, uniquely Japanese?"
"Yes. Yes. It's ingrained in the culture, this idea of continuous improvement."
Japan first sipped the "water of life" (as whisky is known) in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor. He'd brought along some American whisky as a gift to the Emperor.
But it would be almost 70 years before two men, Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, opened a distillery.
Years before, Taketsuru, the son of sake makers, had traveled to Scotland to learn from the masters.
He came back with more than samples. "One of the things that happened is that he fell in love with a local lass there, and brought her back to Japan, along with all that knowledge about whisky making," said Van Eycken.
In 1933, with the help of his Scottish wife, Rita, he founded Japan's other great whisky, Nikka, on the northern island of Hokkaido, a place with a climate not unlike Scotland's.
How proud are the Japanese of their whisky heritage? The love story of Masataka and Rita became a wildly popular soap opera, "Massan."
And with Japanese whiskies wildly in demand, no surprise that some rare ones go for as much as $8,000 a bottle at auction … which is why, the next round's on you!
For more info:
- Nikka Distilleries, Japan
- Suntory Distillery, Yamazaki, Japan
- "Whiskey Rising: The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan" by Stefan van Eycken (Cider Mill Press); Available via Amazon