In Praise of Un-Scotch
Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii was already something of a spirits globalist by 1923 — he’d been importing Western wines and liquors for nearly a quarter of a century, and had created a sweet-grape cocktail inspired by Lisbon Port in 1907. But that was the year, with the construction of Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery in Osaka, that Torii authored what might be the single most significant turning point in the modern biography of whisky.
Yamazaki was something new entirely: its copper pot stills were the first of their kind outside of Scotland; its master distiller, Masatak Taketsuru, was born in Hiroshima but studied organic chemistry in Glasgow and learned to make whisky in the then-thriving Cambeltown distilleries. But Torii’s ambition — and Taketsuru’s, too — was deeply rooted in that hyper-productive nationalist vanity so ordinary to incubating Empires. If Scotland can create great Scotch, well, so can Japan. Thus was more-or-less born the notion of Scotch-style whisky.
It’s by all accounts the turtle’s race from there for Yamazaki, methodical and purposeful. A few decades of unremarkable blends gave purchase to experiments with single malts of ever-increasing quality. In 2003 (the same year Bob Harris enters the Suntory record), The Yamazaki 12 took a Gold at the International Spirits Challenge. After 87 years, many of Yamazaki’s 10 or so single malt offerings make good on its origin story: peaty, smoky, malty, rich and balanced. These are just lovely, lovely Scotches.
So? Blame our credit globalization for decent strip-mall Malaysian food, but the feat of extra-provenantial reproduction is just a little less magical now. I love Yamazaki for what it does, but if it’s Scotch, do I ultimately care where it comes from? I say: whisky is like religion and Galápagos tortoises, it thrives where it adapts. And in recent years, a few new global offerings have come along to back the belief. Scotch is Scottish, but both the processes that create it and the great evocative intangibles that define it thankfully belong to a wider universe. Perhaps it’s time to start adding another layer of blank-hyphen-styles to Scotch-style whiskies. Here are two that make the argument:
A Japanese blend from the progenitor’s two Scotch-style distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu, this is a whisky exceedingly comfortable in its half-breed skin. The bartender who first served it to me had never had it, and at first taste compared it to sake and plum wine. Before trying it, I guessed he was being overly influenced by the ink-brush kana on the label and half-wanted to sarcastically offer Hello Kitty and Wacky Gameshow as competing notes. He was, instead, very right: I’ve never had plum wine, yet am fairly certain I know what it tastes like — but, whatever, Hibiki is aged in plum wine casks, so, yes, that’s there. As for sake? Let’s chalk that up to the straight-forward maltiness and Speyside lightness.
It’s not a complex spirit and, to be honest, I likely wouldn’t order it unless I was very specifically in the mood. But I’m drawn to its quirk, its confession. This is Japanese-style Scotch-style whisky, and I thought about it for days after my first glass. It makes me want to try the 18 year. More than that, it makes me wonder what Korea might do with a pot-still and some peat and makes me hope someone somewhere in Argentina is making Kentucky bourbon.
On the other hand… well, let’s get this out of the way, Bangalore-bred Amrut Fusion is a whisky that doesn’t care if you’re into it. There’s none of the demure, open-palm jubilance I (stereotypically) associate with India here. It’s a murderous, 100-proof firebrand of drink, just nearly over-full of complex earth, oil, spice and sea air.
To be even a shade more racist, where it does overlap with the category in my head for “India” is in its supernatural balance. Not just of its disparate elements and alcohol, but of two distinct competing characters. This is as it should be: the eponymous “fusion” is of Amrut’s other single malts, one un-peated and constructed from Indian barley, and the other actually made with imported Scottish peated malt (I’ve had neither). It’s not invisible, like a “real” Scotch blend, but works more like a photo-finish, a simultaneous arrival. Exactly half of any mouthful would be so very much like Speyside; the other half is all Islay.
It’s a move that is, for me anyway, decidedly un-Scotch: a violation of order, like cutting the baby in half or mixing Burgundy and Chablis in your kitchen and calling it Rosé. This is an irreverence perhaps most possible for an outsider, but the product is outstanding. At once deeply Scotch and truly exotic, strange, unique.
Oh, also, acclaimed. Famously so. Jim Murray named it the third best whisky in the world last year. Perhaps only Amrut is entitled to find out what happens if you blend the first and second.
— Chris Koch, The Spir.it