If I ask you what do Toyota, Sony, Seiko and Nikka have in common? You answer me: Japan? And you’re right… However, behind these brands lies a very part of the history of this country, an entire part of the Japanese culture and state of mind. These brands were pioneers, they dominated, or still dominate their market.
How a country living in the feudal era even a century ago could become a leader in cars, computers, horology, and whiskey.
I like Japan. I appreciate its multiple cultural forms; its watchmaking and its whiskey also feature prominently. The historical and strategic similarities between these two entities are numerous, and sometimes even confusing.
It all begins with the “Meiji” era, a period of openness that spanned between 1868 and 1912 and opposed the policy of closure and isolation of the country known as “Sakoku”. The latter will still have brought a form of prosperity, a culmination of cultural vision, as well as excellence in craftsmanship, without any external influence.
The opening was not easy. In 1852, Commodore Matthew Perry received an order from the President of the United States to force a trade route with Japan: “Buy us stuff or we blew it up!” “, An American way of negotiations.
Modernity as well as American military power push Emperor Mutsuhito to surrender and sign the Kanagawa Accords, thereby opening his country to the rest of the world. So, on March 13, 1854, the Commodore landed in Japan and offered the emperor as a sign of appeasement (no joke) a selection of American products including: an ornithological integral, agricultural machinery, a telescope, a pair of revolvers obviously and a bourbon cask of course.
The Country is late, Mutsuhito knows it. Aware that he was starting from zero, he decided to bring eminent European and American specialists to Japan, they would be the consultants for a radical modernization of the country: German chemists and soldiers, French and English biologists and engineers, American teachers, in short, The best.
Kintaro Hattori, driven by the momentum of modernization of his country, has been selling and repairing western clocks since 1881 in his workshops in Ginza. Soon it will import the first Swiss wristwatches and, in the process, will set up its own production unit, the Seikosha.
Rather than importing Western know-how, some companies have operated in the opposite direction, they have assigned observers (spies?) To large firms in Europe and America. The objective is first to assimilate the knowledge of these industrial jewels, then to supplant them. Inflated with pride and smugness, Westerners will not see the blow coming.
And so it was that a certain Masataka Taketsuru, a chemical engineer, was commissioned by Settsu Shuzo company to study whisky distillation at the University of Glasgow. After a period of experimentation in the Longmorn and Hazelburn distilleries, Masataka returned to Japan inspired and married to a Scottish woman.
A collaboration with Shinjiro Torii follows, for the Kotobukiya (the future Suntory) which leads to the creation of the Yamazaki distillery in 1924. The first real Japanese whisky is finally distilled, but the two men fall out, their visions diverge: Taketsuru wants a whisky with a strong character (Scottish style), but Torii wants a fine and delicate product, reflecting a more Japanese style according to him. Taketsuru and his wife pack up and leave for Hokkaïdo, officially to produce apple juice. Obviously, the latter has another idea in mind: to find his own distillery based on his Scottish vision of whiskey, it is the birth of the Yoichi distillery and the Nikka company.
During the Second World War, the Tokyo-based Seikosha suffered from the Allied bombardments, the personnel and workshops were therefore moved to Suwa, in the heart of the Japanese Alps.
After the war, new buildings were built in Kameido, a new Seikosha, in addition to Suwa, the Daïni Seikosha.
Officially the two entities collaborate, unofficially the two enemy brothers are in healthy competition. Mutual admiration, as well as the desire to produce the best instruments, drives them to outdo each other. Daïni and Suwa sound to my ears like Suntory and Nikka.
Japanese whisky does not deny its Scottish origins, and indeed when in March 2021 Japan had to legislate on the subject, the country adopted a “Japanese whiskey” specification equivalent to that of “Scotch whisky”.
The water used in Japan is of excellent quality, the cereals are carefully selected, even imported from Scotland. The fermentations are precise and controlled, the musts are filtered for a clean and delicate alcohol. Rather fruity than cereal, Japanese whisky uses peat sparingly.
But that’s not all, a Japanese distillery usually has different types of stills and therefore a Japanese Single Malt is actually the result of a complex blend of distillates. Not content with practicing the wide variety of classic barrels (bourbon, sherry, hogsheads), Japan uses Mizunara oak barrels, a rare and fragrant local essence. We could blame Japanese whisky for its technological side because distilleries make great use of their laboratories, but how can one catch up a century of delay without it?
The key to Japanese entrepreneurship is to combine tradition and modernity, to be convinced that you can always do better. But behind this sincere humility hides a real competitive spirit. How do you know if you are good if you are not up against the best?
Early in its history, Seiko will present its chronometer watches to the precision competitions of the Geneva Observatory. The first participations ended in failures. The firm persists and the first prices start to arrive, then to accumulate, to the point that the Swiss will eventually exclude them. But the reputation is acquired.
The competition strategy will pay off for Japanese whisky as well. The latter had remained in the shadows until a competition organized by “Whiskey magazine” in 2001, offering a selection of whiskies blindly judged by 62 international experts. In the end, two Japanese products finished in the first two places: the Yoichi 10 yo “Single cask” and the Hibiki 21 yo. From 2007, the World Whiskey Awards were taken by storm by Japanese bottles, in all categories, and this holdup is still relevant today!
When you have the humility to question traditions, and think you are doing even better, you can only move forward. Japanese whisky today is better than yesterday, and you can be sure, tomorrow’s will be much better.