By P. Jason Sabatine, Spirits Expert at Maximum Beverage in West Hartford
Today, we are very fortunate to be in the midst of a craft beer, spirits, and whiskey renaissance.
No one in contemporary America in the 1970s or 1980s would have guessed that bourbon and rye whiskey would be in such popular demand as they are now. Of course whiskey in the past had very much been at the heart of American everyday life, going back to the nations earliest years of colonial settlers.
Taxation upon whiskey even formed the basis of a rebellion in this country. Until the decades following prohibition, rye whiskey in fact was the number one American drink of choice. It was the basis of cocktails such as the old fashioned, and the Manhattan, which fueled the bar culture of the day.
For a brief and dark period in history, American consumers were lured away from their native spirits, and their rich, full flavors, in favor of neutral and flavorless vodka, and – gasp – light beer! With a shrinking domestic consumer base in the 70s, 80s and well into the 90s, hundreds of regional, and large whiskey distilleries all over the United States were forced to close their doors, and a proud national tradition was nearly lost to the sands of time, leaving only a handful of surviving producers.
Luckily today there are plenty of options for those seeking richness and complexity in their distilled spirits, as well as their craft brews, and new distilleries are popping up left and right.
The international surge in demand for American whiskey has also lead to a renewed interest in other forms of whiskey, including single malt scotch, Irish whiskey, and whiskeys hailing from countries that up until now, have not been seen in the USA.
Of the newcomers most prominent are the whiskies from Japan. Japanese single malts have stolen the spotlight from Scotland in recent years, and garnered many awards and a great deal of media attention.
Japan in fact, is also largely responsible for supporting the bourbon and rye whiskey industry during the time when no one in the U.S. was drinking it. The Japanese thirst for whisk(e)y in general, as well as the entire Japanese whisky industry, was actually founded by one man.
Masataka Taketsuru (1894-1979), came from a long line of sake brewers, going back to the 1700s. He studied at university as a chemist, preparing to carry on the family trade. However, it was whisky making that would become his life’s greatest passion. He traveled to Scotland in 1918, studying organic chemistry at Glasgow University, and apprenticed at many distilleries throughout Scotland. After mastering the art of making whisky, he returned to Japan in 1920, with his Scottish wife Rita, whom he had married earlier that year.
Upon returning, Mr. Taketsuru joined the company that would later become Suntory (now Beam-Suntory), and helped establish their famed Yamazaki distillery. He would later set off independently to found two distilleries of his own; Yoichi in 1934, and Miyagikyo in 1969. His experience taught him the importance of the landscape and environment in making whisk(e)y, and he selected the best locations, with the right conditions of temperature, humidity, wind, and water source. His passion for quality was uncompromising, never sacrificing anything in favor or efficiency.
His life’s work of introducing his fellow Japanese to the joys of fine whisky certainly must have been a difficult one. Today though it is obvious that he succeeded. Japanese whiskies are now available world-wide.
In a way, the industry that he created, and connoisseurship for whiskeys that it inspired within Japan, created a market there for Bourbon and Rye, helping our own whiskey industry in the USA keep afloat. We don’t have to worry about that anymore though, Bourbon and Rye are back and they are here to stay.
It’s just one big happy whisk(e)y world these days.
To all the whiskey friends out there, Cheers!
Did this article make you thirsty for whiskey? Sample more than 200 brands at the 4th Annual WeHa Whiskey Festival on Saturday October 15th. For tickets and more information visit www.wehawhiskey.com.