Having a wee dram, Japan style
I had always associated whisky drinking with elderly men and, considering I was neither old nor male, the drink was invisible to me – in the same way that Bacardi Breezers are invisible to men of a certain age who sniff and swirl shiraz in their glass.
But then a few things happened to change my mind. First, my favourite writer agreed to launch my novel and I discovered the Great Man drank only whisky. I had to find him a bottle of something called Lark.
Then, months later, I was in Tasmania and stumbled on the place that makes it.
A Scottish guy worked there and told us his fantastical, inspiring story that was such a tearjerker it could have been called Lark: The Musical.
He’d been working somewhere grim, like a call centre in Wigan selling shoelaces over the telephone, when he chanced upon a job making whisky, which brought him to Tasmania where he now shares the joy of making and drinking whisky with people like me: people who thought whisky was an old man’s drink because that’s what you drank when all your taste buds had died.
The Scot prepared and swirled and warmed the whisky with the ceremonial care of a Brahmin priest preparing opium in a village in Rajasthan, India (which I also saw once, but that’s another story).
Drinking it was a revelation. This old man’s drink was good: like drinking melted-down jewellery.
I finally got whisky – but I didn’t buy it. It was expensive; I was poor. And I didn’t want to keep it in the house because what if I came home and drank it all in one go, and then died?
Whisky – a powerful, brooding, strange force made in some of the most brooding, strange places in the world (Scotland, Tasmania, Japan) – was too strong to keep in the house, like kryptonite or ketamine.
So I imagined a different sort of future for me and whisky: I would drink it when I was out on the town, no more than two a night. I would have the first with soda and the second on the rocks and I would be a female, younger Bill Murray who was mysterious and possibly going through a divorce, but remained sophisticated and kept her lipstick on straight.
“She nursed the drink in her hot little hands and, unlike gin, it would not make her cry when she talked about her divorce …” I got so carried away with the fantasy of what I would drink should I get divorced that I forgot I wasn’t even married and just put in my usual order for sauvignon blanc when someone was going to the bar.
Whisky was future me. And the future had not yet arrived. But strange forces kept drawing me to it.
Tokyo Bird, a cool Japanese restaurant in Surry Hills in New South Wales, started holding five-course Japanese food and Japanese whisky degustation dinners. I had to go.
Our first drink on arrival looked like a glass of champagne but was actually a whisky soda – light yellow-coloured and bubbly. It was a 12-year-old whisky from the Yamazaki distillery in Osaka prefecture, Japan. Owned by the Suntory brewing and distilling group, it was Japan’s first commercial whisky distillery and opened in 1923.
Whisky is no longer exclusively for old men with singed taste buds. (Supplied)
Our second whisky, a highball, was also from Yamazaki – a single malt distiller’s reserve.
“It [Yamazaki] even has its own train station, close to Kyoto,” our waiter told us. This was paired with tsukune – grilled chicken meatballs served over grilled baby corn.
The next course was pork belly with miso and sesame dressing. This was paired with whisky on the rocks from the Yamanashi prefecture.
Then, more highballs from Suntory – “a forest distillery with really herbaceous flowers”, says our waiter. This whisky was paired with tempura of sweet potato and zucchini. Whisky goes with everything.
Then I was in salaried-person’s paradise: Wagyu beef served on a crispy rice ball with a 12-year-old neat Yamazaki (our waiter described it as a “super-premium whisky”).
We finished our degustation with ice cream and a 17-year-old whisky with a massive ice cube in it. I’d gone from having a wee dram of the stuff at a distillery demo in Tasmania to five whiskies in a row. And it was amazing. So great that I proposed marriage to my dining companion, then asked him to divorce me – just to get to the whisky part of my life sooner.
That was winter. I haven’t had whisky since, but only because I want to keep the memory of a glorious night of drinking only the best of the best intact.
But this week I spoke to Tokyo Bird manager Jason Ang, who is organising one more whisky degustation dinner before Christmas.
“There’s definitely a huge trend in drinking whisky,” he told me. “The notion of going out and having a heap of vodka, lime and sodas is definitely disappearing. People can spend the same amount on two drinks of higher quality or even one drink.”
The Japanese whisky Ang sells is not for “shooting”, either: “Our whisky is too expensive to shoot. I’m seeing younger people drinking whisky – girls especially.
“From my years of being a bartender, what I’m seeing is that we don’t get people drinking things like bourbon and Coke – if you are paying for premium spirits, why would you want to dilute it for something sweet? Things go through cycles – Japanese whisky was on a huge decline six or seven years ago, no one was drinking it, then someone introduced whisky soda and lemon and that got everyone trying it.”
Whisky is the hot new drink on the block. It’s no longer exclusively for old men with singed taste buds. It’s like champagne with an edge.
What will everyone be drinking in 2016? Ang says whisky soda is refreshing. Bring on summer. – © Guardian News & Media 2015