The last drops from the 1981 Port Ellen whisky (roughly $9,200 a bottle, peaty, a little malty, not too smoky) were a nice warm-up. The seven-year Laphroaig (specially bottled for a pub in Stockholm, a delicate balance of smoke and sherry) was a solid follow up. And the other bottles perched on every available surface in Hideo Yamaoka’s apartment – his second in downtown Tokyo, devoted to storing a 2,000-bottle collection worth some $320,000 – hold enough distilled Scotland to keep Yamaoka’s gifted tongue in thrall for a thousand nights to come.
If he were to run dry, it’s a short walk to a nearby whisky bar with another 1,000 bottles. Not far from there, another bar sells whisky rare enough (Macallan, 1959) it goes for $68 per 15 millilitres. A short taxi ride away, yet another bar is tucked into a basement, measuring barely 200 square feet, with just eight chairs and hundreds more bottles. Spend enough time at it, and you’ll find more than 100, perhaps 200, whisky bars in a city whose distance from the Strathspey and Islay has done nothing to diminish a remarkable affection for Scotland’s best.
“Tokyo is the best city for whisky lovers, whisky connoisseurs, whisky collectors,” Yamaoka says.
Japan has become a whisky powerhouse, a distinction underscored earlier this month when Osaka-headquartered Suntory Holdings Ltd. agreed to buy Beam Inc., the Deerfield, Ill., based maker of Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark for $13.6-billion (U.S.). Japan is now the world’s second-largest distiller of single-malt whisky. Japanese-made whiskies have also, of late, been winning top honours at world competitions; last year, Suntory was named Distiller of the Year at the International Spirits Challenge. Acquiring Beam will make Suntory the world’s third-largest whisky-maker, and add to a stable of distilleries that already includes famous marks like Bowmore – and, soon, Laphroaig, which Beam owns.
None of which concerns Yamaoka, who saw dramatic improvements in Bowmore whisky, once derided as tasting “like lipstick,” once Suntory took over.
Yamaoka, 55, works at a publishing house, where he is nearing the end of a long career editing and marketing manga, Japanese comic books. His bookish demeanour is accentuated by frameless glasses, suspenders and a monogrammed shirt. Look to his shelves, though, and it becomes clear that as Japan has ascended into the whisky elite, so has he.
Among Yamaoka’s rows of bottles are some that bear his signature (a mark buyers look for as it signals a gem) and his name has grown increasingly coveted with each new Scottish whisky tasting competition victory. He now has eight.
Japan acquired its taste for whisky in unusual fashion: by watering it down. Even in Europe, “people don’t taste whisky because it is too strong. So they drink beer or wine.” But Japanese bars tend to serve whisky mizuwari, or highball style, diluted with soda or still water. It makes whisky more accessible. History has also favoured Japan: In 1996, famed Italian collector Edoardo Giaconne died, putting onto the market thousands of bottles. Many of them ended up stocking Japanese bars.
Yamaoka is an accidental connoisseur. Before that first Glenfiddich, he barely tasted alcohol as he had thought himself allergic. But at 30, he went to a hospital for an allergen test and was told he need not worry. “It was a misunderstanding,” he said, and laughs. “I am a strong drinker.” The diagnosis set him free.
He had studied English literature in university and developed a love for Shakespeare, but ended up editing manga for girls. He was bored. Whisky, with its deep history and its near-infinite variety of flavours, was thrilling.
“I drank every night,” he said. He went to bar after bar, talking to bartenders, learning and sampling. “I began to taste so much alcohol: wine and sake and Japanese whisky and tequila.” Some he quickly dismissed: “Bourbon is boring to whisky connoisseurs.” But whisky was different. “It has complexity,” he says.
At 35, Yamaoka enrolled in perfume school. Bartenders had pointed out floral hints in whiskies that he couldn’t quite identify: rose, camomile, violet. He discovered that good perfume isn’t so different from good whisky. Perfume-makers obsess about the top, middle and base notes, while whisky-tasters look for the nose, mouth and finish. “It’s very similar,” he says.
He put his mind to knowing everything there was to know about Scottish spirits, later volunteering to help translate Malt Whisky Companion, an industry bible. His work led to its first publication in Japanese.
The oldest unopened bottle in his collection is a 1929 Glen Grant highland malt. He has been saving it for a February trip to Scotland, a prewar whisky tour where collectors will come to swap rare tastes. Looking at it, he’s not sure he has the patience.
“I would like to taste it,” he says.
He tears off the plastic wrapped around the screw cap to ensure no alcohol escapes, then cracks open the bottle. He quickly pitches it up, pressing close his nose. He inhales.
“Mmmm,” he says. “It smells good.”
He sniffs again, then sips.
“Good,” he says. “Very sweet and soft. Nice, good nose.” He is relieved. Sometimes, vintage whiskies take on a woody flavour, a common enough problem.
The Glen Grant does not suffer that affliction. In fact, it has left Yamaoka bereft of his normal precise taste descriptions. It is, he declares, “very sexy.”