Whisky is as Scottish as haggis, neeps and tatties, but there are some cool new kids on the block
Words: Louise Crane
Friday 25 May 2018
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Whisky is as Scottish as haggis, neeps and tatties. Or is it? Since 2014, when Japan’s Yamazaki 12-year-old Sherry Cask 2013 was anointed World’s Best Whisky by noted writer and hat-wearer Jim Murray, the names of world whiskies have been on the lips of everyone in the industry. From one continent to the next, distilleries are popping up like daffodils in springtime. And they’re knocking Scotch out of the park.
Yamazaki is a distillery owned by Japan’s oldest whisky company, Suntory. Founded in 1899 by Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical wholesaler, the company initially sold imported wines from a shop in Osaka before turning its hand to production. A couple of decades later, Masataka Taketsuru joined the fold, a chemist who had voyaged to Scotland to learn distilling, returning to his home country with a head full of knowledge and a Scottish wife. Torii was looking for his next enterprise and, recognising the high value of whisky, he opened Yamazaki on the outskirts of Kyoto in 1923 with Taketsuru at the helm. Today, Yamazaki is joined by Hakushu and Chita distilleries at Suntory, and 12 others owned by other companies. This year, the World Whiskies Awards named Hakushu 25-year-old the World’s Best Single Malt. At the same time, the World’s Best Blended whisky was awarded to Taketsuru 17-year-old from Nikka, named after – you guessed it – Masataka Taketsuru.
Across the Pacific Ocean, Australia and New Zealand are also scooping up their fair share of awards. Bill Lark is the man who kicked it all off in Oz, and is now affectionately called the Godfather of Australian whisky. As a land surveyor (and naturally, a whisky enthusiast) he realised the island of Tasmania had all the qualities needed to make delicious whisky: fields full of barley, plenty of pure, soft water, and peat bogs. One problem: distilling was prohibited in Tasmania. Once that minor hurdle was overcome, Bill set up his first distillery in Richmond in 1997, before the operation moved to the waterfront in Hobart three years later. Lark’s Distillery has gone from strength to strength with Bill’s daughter Kristy as General Manager. Bill also took over Sullivan’s Cove distillery and in 2014 its French Oak Cask won Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards. Perhaps it was getting its own back on Australasian neighbour Dunedin from New Zealand Whisky Collection, whose 16-year-old DoubleWood won Best Australasian Blend in 2013.
If Yamazaki’s 2014 accolade stirred the pot, Sullivan Cove’s award brought it to a ferocious boil. If that wasn’t enough, joining the fray was Taiwan’s Kavalan, a behemoth of a distillery whose factory can put out 4.5 million litres a year. Named after the indigenous Kavalan people, who originally inhabited the distillery’s location of the Kabalan Plain, it was only built in 2005 and has fast become a favourite. Fast is a key word, for the hot climate of East Asia causes the whisky to age much quicker, such that a three year old might have the maturity of a Scotch whisky twice its age. Kavalan is actually the whisky that got the real buffs whispering of a young usurper to Scotland’s whisky throne. On Burns Night 2010, a two-year-old Kavalan was put up against four three-year-old British whiskies in a blind tasting at Edinburgh’s historic Vintner’s Rooms. Experts were astonished. So when the Yamazaki received its major award in 2013, those really in the know were not surprised, but the rest of the whisky world was. Then in 2015, for the third time in a row, Scotch whisky was beaten at the World Whiskies Awards by a foreign imposter. Kavalan’s Solist Vinho Barrique was the Best Single Malt in the world.
Hop across to India and you’ll see the effects of world whisky’s popularity. Typically, what passes for “whisky” in many Indians homes is a molasses-derived spirit that is not technically whisky at all. Amrut and Paul John are excellent exceptions. Amrut single malt whisky was launched in 2004 and has evolved techniques and an experimental streak that sees it play about with different casks for maturation. Sited in Bangalore, the distillery produces 4 million cases a year, of which about 25% are blended whisky and around 10,000 cases are single malt. Paul John is newer, having been made only since 2008 at an established distillery in Goa. It uses Indian malted barley but peat imported from Scotland, since the peat found in India is composed of matter that basically smells dreadful when burnt. Both distilleries are less heralded than Kavalan, but awarded nonetheless, with Paul John Single Malt receiving a “Liquid Gold” commendation in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2013 after Amrut Fusion was recognised in the 2009 edition as the world’s third best whisky.
James Sedgwick is the man responsible for South Africa’s single malts, though you won’t find him around today. Yorkshire-born Captain James Sedgwick was a ship’s captain for the British East India Company, who founded his own business on the Western Cape in 1859. His eponymous distillery was built by his sons in Wellington around 1886. Since then, it has had just seven managers, including a former professional cricketer. The distillery has produced single malt since 1990, and in 2011 Whisky Magazine acknowledged it as Whisky Brand Innovator of the Year. Two different brands hail from the one distillery: Three Ships (the original blend, a mix of imported Scotch and native whisky) and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky. In 2006, James Sedgwick was joined by a micro-distillery named Drayman’s Brewery, 1800 metres above sea level near Pretoria, which operates on a solera system taken from sherry production.
Over in Europe, there is a smorgasbord of whiskies to choose from. France has Brenne Whisky, a brand launched by former ballerina Allison Parc, where organic grain is grown on the distillery’s farm, distilled in former Cognac stills and finished in Cognac barrels. Très français. Holland has the English-sounding Millstone from the family-run Zuidam Distillers, who make a rye just as delightful as their single malts. Mackmyra from Sweden has a distinct Scandinavian accent, with smoke from peat and juniper to dry the barley and local oak for maturation. Just next door in Finland we find the Teerenpeli distillery, part of the family-owned Teerenpeli Group that owns nine Finnish restaurants as well as a brewery, who produced the first Finnish 10-year-old single malt in 2015. These four distilleries are just a few of many up-and-coming European distilleries that are beginning to make their mark.
Take a flight to the United States of America and you’ll encounter over 1300 distilleries. Most will be making the sweeter bourbons or spicy ryes that America is famous for, but a growing number are producing malt in similar fashion to the Scots. One such maker is Balcones, a distillery that has shrugged off a slightly shady past to win world recognition for the excellence of its spirit. Chip Tate founded and built the distillery from the ground up - under a freeway bridge - in 2008. By 2013, he needed money that he and his investors didn’t have, so he found another investor who would become a partner with a majority share, Gregory S. Allen. Then things got surreal, with accusations that Allen was trying to steal the company away, and that Tate was becoming increasingly suspicious, erratic and violent. Eventually he was served with a restraining order when he, allegedly, threatened to shoot Allen and burn down the distillery. In December 2014 he was fired, and was forbidden to make whisky for two years through a non-competition clause. Don’t worry, none of this is reflected in the whisky. Its Texas 1 Single Malt is full-bodied and silky smooth in the palate, with notes of baked fruit and banana that clinched it America’s Best Single Malt in the World Whiskies Awards 2014.
By now, many of you dear readers will have put down the magazine to Google for travel arrangements. The world is full of whisky just waiting to be explored, from Australia to Finland, Japan to South Africa. But do not worry if you can’t afford a round-the-world trip. Many world whiskies are imported to the UK and sold both online and in physical shops. Some websites sell 3cl samples so you can try a little before you commit to a full size bottle. Or, get yourself down to a whisky show and start ticking off countries as you go. It’s the one time where you can forget your passport.
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