This is part six of our ongoing series on Japanese whisky. To get started, see:
Part One | An Intro to Japanese Whisky
Part Two | Suntory: The Japanese Whisky that Started it All
Part Three | Hakushu 12 Year Japanese Whisky Review
Part Four | Yamazaki 18 Year Japanese Whisky Review
Part Five | Masataka Taketsusu and Nikka Japanese Whisky
I begin writing, as usual, with a full glass. I’m fond of doing so. I pour a glass of whisky and do not begin writing until after first enjoying a dram unsullied by the pressures of a blank page. The pressures to write something worthy of the casual reader’s attention as he browses his newsfeed, and to satisfy the editors with strong work, which somehow always seems more daunting. Reflecting over the first glass of Yoichi 15 Year Japanese Whisky, I can’t help but travel beyond the way we experience whisky into the ways we are consumed.
I spent a little time last week discussing the romance that blossomed between Taketsuru and his Scottish wife, Rita, but not what brought her to carry something of a household name in Japan. There are a dozen beautiful stories on the subject which I will never find the time to tell, but at the heart of the matter, I believe the Yoichi distillery is the answer. Following Taketsuru’s marriage to Rita and their return to Japan, neither would visit Scotland again. Towards the end of her life, after she had moved away from the harsher climes of Hokkaido, Rita’s youngest sister Lucy asked if she would return to Scotland for a visit. Rita brushed it off with a joke about her fear of flying. In her final days, she left her hospice against the advice of her physicians to travel back to Yoichi and live out the last days of her life. It seems that, for Rita, her motivation went beyond simply wanting to support Taketsuru in achieving his dream. Yoichi had become her true home.
It is often said that behind every great man, there is a great woman, and I believe this case to be no exception. In part, we owe the greatness of Yoichi to the woman who fell in love with it, as well as the man who captured it. A woman who braved the harsh winters of Hokkaido, a fear of flying and such intense xenophobia that for the latter part of WWII she was a suspected enemy of the state. She endured this for the man she loved. A man who faced daunting odds and years of silent obstacles, who labored under men he knew to be his lessers, in order to share a vision. The story of Yoichi—their story—is one of two loves and hardships folded into one, a message that shines through in the whisky.
The opening salvo of Yoichi 15 is an ode to struggle and perseverance in the face of adversity. I am drawn in by comforting aromas of cereal, nougat, and caramel, to find an intense heat. This heat grows into hard mineral and bitter iodine as the heat stings my lips and tongue. This is not what I’ve come to anticipate of Japanese whisky. Where is the citrus, the green fruit and melon? I expected something easy and friendly, but this packs a wallop of peat smoke I am completely unprepared for. As the heat expands in my mouth, there is a sensation I can only describe as parched. And yet… the whisky softens. A hearty fortitude melts away, and heat gives way to rich ganache. Now I find the nougat and caramel I smelled, and such an incredible richness comes with it. The mouthfeel is lush, enveloping, rewarding. I can sense that this is what Taketsuru experienced some forbidden night in his youth. This is what led him halfway around the world to learn a language that is not spoken. This is whisky.
You must see with eyes unclouded by hate. See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.
The above quote is attributed to Hayao Miyazaki, a legendary animator and another hero of mine. He shares many commonalities with Masataka Taketsuru, the blending of idealism with gray moralism and a reverence for natural order chief among them. Though someone else’s words, I can’t help but see them as Taketsuru’s credo–-delving into the nature of man and learning to serve his best when we’ve known his worst. I believe it to be something Taketsuru mastered in his work, and certainly with the enveloping balance of Yoichi 15, now solidly positioned as my favorite whisky on my bar.
– 45% ABV
CE Rating: ★★★★★