Brewers set out to take sake global; the ascent of Japanese whiskey

Brewers set out to take sake global


APR 26, 2013

NAGOYA – Ambitious sake brewers have turned to foreign markets in an attempt to replicate wine’s global success.

Exports of sake, which is essentially a rice wine locally referred to as “nihonshu,” have been growing in recent years, and trade fairs and competition events have become common. The proponents, some of whom are motivated by an unquenchable ambition, feel ready to take it up a notch.

Banjo Jozo, a sake brewery in Nagoya, has for several years been cultivating foreign customers. It is now exporting the Kamoshibito Kuheiji brand to upscale establishments, including the Ritz Paris and a three-star restaurant.The brewery, managed by Kuheiji Kuno, 47, the 15th-generation owner and manager, employs around a dozen workers with an average age of about 27.

At one time, Banjo Jozo embraced mechanization to produce sake, going with the trend of mass production. However, as “the taste was poor,” Kuno said, the brewery returned to its time-honored brewing method of making it by hand.

As a result, Banjo Jozo’s production volume has plummeted to a fifth of its peak over the past quarter century. Rather than seeking to increase volume, Kuno said he wanted to assure “a quality level that I can be proud of.”

Seven years ago, Banjo Jozo made its first forays into France and other foreign markets. Kuno traveled to those markets to peddle his sake and gradually gained customers in Germany and Switzerland as well as France.

Kuno is offering sake for foreign palates as Japan’s answer to wine.

“I want to bring it to a new stage by making it a global drink,” he said.

His brewery sells some sake in bottles with winelike labels, and he suggests that sipping from a wineglass is a good way to enjoy the taste of sake.

Overall sales by volume of sake in fiscal 2011 totaled about 600,000 kiloliters, around half the level in fiscal 1996, according the National Tax Agency, which regulates sales of alcoholic drinks.

Meanwhile, the volume of exports has continued to grow, reaching about 14,000 kl in 2012, government trade data show.

In some cases, exporting is a desperate move by brewers pushed to the wall because of the drop in domestic sales. But an increasing number are aggressively courting foreign customers.

Isojiman Shuzo, a brewer in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, boasts that domestic demand is so robust that it can barely make enough sake to satisfy demand. Even so, President Yoji Teraoka, 57, has global ambitions.

“Wine has taken root in Japan, but sake has not done likewise in other countries,” Teraoka said.

“I would say that other countries have some foods that go well with sake,” he said.

His brewery started exporting sake to the United States and Britain seven years ago.

“It would be interesting if (nihonshu) acquired the kind of status that wine has attained in Japan,” he said.

Sakata Shuzo in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, is exploring business opportunities in Asian countries as well as in France and Belgium.

Shoichi Sato, 66, president of Sakata Shuzo, said he will promote sake as a way to experience Japanese culture to gain widespread acceptance.

“It may take time, but I’m sure it will be accepted if we make patient efforts,” Sato said.

April 25, 2013, 11:59 a.m. ET

Japanese Whisky

The finest single malt in the world is no longer from Scotland.


PERHAPS MORE THAN any other people, the Japanese have mastered the subtle art of the bar. In Kyoto, where the giant beverage company Suntory has its most famous whisky distillery, in the suburb of Yamazaki, the bar has reached rare heights of sophistication, with a meditative introspection that seems to unconsciously match and complement the local whiskies. Japanese bartending is being imitated increasingly in the West, by barmen who marvel at the techniques and instruments that make it unique. Many now use elegant long spoons made only in Japan for mixing drinks, and several have even adopted the Japanese practice of carving perfectly round ice balls. This refined attention to detail perfectly suits the small 12-seat Japanese bar and its unobtrusive hospitality.

Whisky (the preferred spelling in Japan, as in Scotland, is without an “e”) is the distillate that most defines upper-end Japanese bars and has done much to shape it. In some you will find, apart from the typical array of sake, library-like shelves lined not with vellum spines but with dark-gold bottles of Hakushu, Laphroaig, Bowmore and Yamazaki. From Glencairn Crystal glasses (the slightly tapered nosing glasses used by master blenders), hushed drinkers sip their Nikka single malts. There is an air of concentration, of quiet, mastered pleasure, and in some sense, these attributes mirror the astonishing ascendency of Japanese whisky itself, which now regularly surpasses its Scottish progenitor in international whisky awards.

At the 2012 World Whiskies Awards, for example, Suntory’s Yamazaki 25-year-old was voted World’s Best Single Malt, while Nikka won the top spot in the Blended Malt category. Suntory now exports well over 10,000 cases a year to the United States alone, with France and the UK not far behind. With their exceptional equilibrium, smoothness and delicacy, these whiskies are redefining an ancient art. When I ask Mike Miyamoto, a former master distiller at Suntory, why their whiskies are becoming so popular across the world, his reply is terse: “Quality. We are trying to make our whisky better every year.”

Kyoto’s contemplative bars are somewhat like the small wooden kaiseki restaurants that have made the city famous for its cuisine. The bar at Kanga-an, tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood, sits inside a small early 17th-century temple once patronized by the Imperial family. Its exquisite garden of bonsai and carved stone animals was created by the brooding emperor Go Mizuno, whose poetry survives there in stone fragments. At the bar, set in the middle of this garden, I sit one night sipping a glass of Hakushu single malt. Produced in the mountains just west of Tokyo, in one of the highest distilleries in the world, it’s reputedly made from a water like no other.

My barman has much to say about the properties of the water used in Hakushu and Suntory’s other famed single malt, Yamazaki (the Japanese are obsessed with water, ascribing mystical attributes to it). “The water for Yamazaki was used in the tea ceremony for centuries,” he explains. “It has some remarkable quality. We can’t put our finger on it scientifically.” And, indeed, Sen no Rikyu—the 16th-century tea master who perfected the tea ceremony—chose Yamazaki water for his tea. Yet the unique properties of Japanese malts are about more than water.

As proud as the Japanese are of their achievements with single malt, the whiskies they drink most often are blended. “The Japanese consumer has no patience for tastes out of balance,” explains Neyah White, a former bartender from San Francisco and current brand ambassador for Suntory. “Since the vast majority of the whisky consumed gets stretched with water, in the form of the Highball, the blenders are critical.” The whisky, in other words, has to hold its own against water. Another curious specialization is the use of native Japanese oak in fermentation barrels—an oak known as Mizunara. Whisky matured in Mizunara barrels loses an exceptional amount of water through evaporation, making for a much more condensed final product. Moreover, says White, “the incense and sandalwood aromas they impart just cannot be found anywhere else.”

The bar’s air of quiet, mastered pleasure mirrors the astonishing ascendency of Japanese whisky, which regularly surpasses its Scottish progenitor in international whisky awards.”

Japan’s whisky industry was created by two men: Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka distillery; and his original employer, Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical wholesaler who started Suntory and is responsible for Japan’s first distillery at Yamazaki in 1923. The whiskies produced by these two men display intriguing differences. Taketsuru traveled alone to Scotland in 1918 and married a Scottish woman who returned with him to Japan. Together, they ran his new company from a distillery in Japan’s far northern island of Hokkaido, at a place called Yoichi. Taketsuru had enrolled earlier at the University of Glasgow where he was the first Japanese person to ever study whisky scientifically, and after working under Torii for a while, he founded Nikka in 1934.

Enlarge Image


© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy

The chief blender for Yamazaki

For Taketsuru, remote and austere Yoichi was as close as he could get to the conditions of the Scottish Highlands. And he aimed to create an equally austere, rigorous, pure Scotch. To this day, Nikka Yoichi single malt is among the most subtle and stringent of Japanese whiskies, as is its sister malt, Miyagikyo, which is made in northern Honshu. The distillation methods used are ultratraditional. The pot stills at Yoichi, for example, are heated using finely powdered natural coal, a technique that has almost died out in Scotland itself. The whisky’s peaty, rich flavors derive in part from this “direct heating.” The elite Suntory whiskies are not vastly dissimilar, since Torii was also inspired to replicate the Scotch he admired, but they have a different profile—sweeter and smoother.

The ultimate whisky bar in Kyoto is a place called Cordon Noir, which sits behind an unmarked door on the third floor of a tiny mall in the Pontocho area. Inside, the bar is smoky, dark and yet quietly elegant. The walls reveal a lot about the contemporary Japanese palate. The Scotch, Bourbon and Irish sections are voluminous and packed with rarities: Caol Ila’s Douglas of Drumlanrig 25-year-old single cask sits side by side with old Ardbegs and Bruichladdich Port Charlotte. But the rarer Japanese whiskies are the reason to come.

Over a few nights I staggered up to the unmarked third floor to try not just older examples of Yoichi and Miyagikyo—and a few blends like Suntory’s Hibiki—but a small yet intense range of lesser-known offerings: Evermore, which is lovely in arcane square bottles; and a 12-year Mars, matured in sherry butts from the Shinshu distillery, which was less obviously aromatic and fruited, but endowed with its own delicate character embodied in a beautiful dark color. The 2003 Evermore quickly became one of my favorite Japanese whiskies, with its sweet nose and woody, refined aromas. I had not seen it anywhere else.

Despite these delightful diversions, time and again I came back to the Hakushu I had first tried at Kanga-an. There is something indefinably Japanese about it—a meticulousness, a clarity of palate and a fanatical purity. “Why all this effort,” White says, “the extreme range in wood influences, the wide variety of spirit styles? Because this is whisky for the Japanese people; it must fit into the Japanese lifestyle and sensibility.”

In other words, they want a whisky that is as good as their food, which is arguably among the best in the world. After nearly a century of honing their distillery skills, they are finally getting it.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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