SAMURAI SPIRIT

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Japanese whisky expert and cocktail-making maestro, Gen Yamamoto, oversees his eponymous bar in Azabu-Jban, Tokyo.

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Cocktail by Gen Yamamoto

As a growing passion for Japanese whisky blazes a trail across the globe, in a tranquil corner of Tokyo, Gen Yamamoto’s eight-seater bar is quietly elevating the art of Japanese whisky cocktails. Conrad Magazine explores Zen and the art of cocktail making.
Peruse the shelves of liquor stores in Tokyo, and the most common tag to be found under the elegant calligraphy and sakura-embossed labels for Japanese whisky is a regretful ‘sold out’. That’s because, in recent years, Japan’s version of the more famously Scottish, Irish or American mahogany-colored liquor has begun to make waves across the world, winning prestigious awards, breaking sales records and generally capturing the attention of whisky aficionados everywhere. But wherefore has this unlikely-sounding spirit gained such extraordinary cachet?

First, a few basics: Japan is the world’s third largest producer of whisky, behind Scotland and the US (yes, it beats Ireland in output too), and while there are stylistic similarities between Japanese whisky and all other producers, Japan’s has many technical reasons to be considered a breed apart. The greater variations in storage temperature reportedly make for much deeper and more rapid cask maturation. The particular minerality of the water is said to be of influence, as are a few careful twists of Japanese distilling innovation. Different shapes of stills, different types of yeast for fermentation, varied mixes of barley and other grains are all engineered towards a particularly Japanese palate and drinking style, meaning that Japanese whisky stands out—discreetly but proudly—on the world stage in terms of its technique. There is much more to it than that, however.

“Japan and the West have a very different approach to whisky blending,” says Gen Yamamoto, the founder of Bar Gen Yamamoto, located in Azabu-Jban in Tokyo. With 16 years of bartending experience under his belt, including an eight-year stint in New York and New Jersey, Yamamoto is something of an expert when it comes to the world’s spirits. “It’s because we all have fundamentally different cultures and ideas based on what we do and see. Not only in whisky, but also in arts and music,”
Nevertheless, despite this divergence, the history of Japanese whisky is essentially a story of wakon-ysai — Japanese spirit meeting Western techniques. It started in 1923, when Masataka Taketsuru—widely considered the father of Japanese whisky—built Japan’s first whisky distillery at Yamazaki for Kotobukiya (later to become Suntory, one of the country’s leading food and beverage companies). Born to a family with a nihonshu (commonly known as saké) brewery, Taketsuru had studied chemistry at the University of Glasgow and then worked at Scottish distilleries. A decade later, he established his own distillery to develop his own brand: Nikka Whisky. Its first bottle was released in 1940.

While the market for Japanese whisky waxed and waned over the years, a recent spate of big-hitting global whisky awards has brought it into the big league. Japanese whisky experienced an 85 percent increase in exports from 2008 to 2014, but this global surge in popularity has not changed the peculiarly Japanese character of its craft and finesse. To Yamamoto, the “Japanese-ness” of whisky lies in the pursuit of order, and of harmony — timeless values to which fashion cannot dictate.

Indeed, as I’m seated in the tranquil surrounds of Yamamoto’s eight-seater bar, I doubt that I’m in the presence of a man swung by the force of mere trends. The discreet and composed 37-year-old is dressed in a meticulous white suit and black tie, which could belong to the aforementioned 1920s, or to a future where fashionable fads no longer exist. Yamamoto started his eponymous bar three years ago in Azabu-Jban, a leafy and village-like neighborhood popular with embassies and expat families. The joint is an exquisitely understated affair.

Yamamoto tells me his intention was to set up a cocktail bar in a prime location with a profound sense of community, rather than the adjacent commercial centres of Ginza and Roppongi. “They have a very different drinking culture. I want my customers to solely enjoy the drinking experience,” he explains. No music, no cocktail names and no showy cocktail-shaking demonstrations are to be found here; only the clinking sounds and tête-à-tête conversations of quiet intimacy. This is the concept of ichi-go ichi-e—treasuring every encounter—encapsulated.

samurai3Cocktail by Gen Yamamoto
As for the drinks, the milk-white cocktail that he has been slowly mixing up for me is a mix of Hokkaido potato and Suntory whisky, finished with a hint of herb. It imparts a surprising texture, akin to crème de champignons and a refreshing taste of plants. “I don’t have a favorite spirit brand, but I avoid those with opaque-sounding ingredients. Gin made from high-quality wheat — what does that even mean?” Yamamoto laughs.

The majority of Yamamoto’s clients are from overseas, and when they ask him which is ‘the best’ Japanese whisky, Yamamoto replies: “There is no such [thing] as the best whisky. It is whether or not that whisky matches the other ingredients.” Today, the Japanese whisky-based drinks options are diverse and versatile; from fruity and spicy to full-bodied and smoky, the Japanese whiskey market has matured to welcome drinkers with wide-ranging tastes.

As Yamamoto pours a vintage 1970s Nikka blend, he says: “How gentle it is! Perhaps this mellow texture was the most popular of the generation then.” There is a focus and poise to his manner that makes loud conversations feel intrusive. Somehow, in Yamamoto’s presence, cocktails feel meditative. Watching him, it becomes clear to me that the rise in popularity of Japanese whisky isn’t about novelty, or even globalization. It is about the world longing for the Japanese standard of quality and dedication to intricacies. “I don’t know what is the best,” says Yamamoto in a quiet voice. “I am just trying to do what I can.”

This is the concept of Ichi-go Ichi-e—treasuring every encounter—encapsulated.
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