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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: Japan

The Whisky:  Hibiki12 Years old

The Book:  Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Considering its title, the book might seem a bit out of season, but the weather’s not been the warmest this June. The cherry blossoms arrived late, and the sight of them invariably turns this whisky drinker’s thoughts to Japan.


The glass holds amber gold. A luxuriant nose combining a wealth of subtle aromas, integrated layers of flowers and fruit, laced with caramel and honey warmed with citrus zest. On the palate, a host of malty fruit flavours, a little sweet, a little creamy, but with enough fire and spice to keep it unpredictable. Lingers very nicely indeed. Blending at its best. (43% abv)

Part of the experience of this well-crafted whisky is the vessel which holds it. The glass bottle has 24 facets, corresponding to the 24 seasons of the old Japanese lunar calendar. The word Hibiki means ‘resonance’; it embodies harmony. The philosophy of its parent company Suntory is “In Harmony with People and Nature.” Worthy then of the book.

Suntory dates from 1899. In 1923 its owner, Shinjiro Torii, founded Japan’s first whisky distillery, Yamazaki, not far from Kyoto. His inspiration came from the best Scotch and, on a practical level, he employed Masataka Taketsuru, who had travelled to Scotland and gained considerable distilling experience there. Fifty years later Torii’s son, Keizo Saji, expanded Suntory with the construction of a second distillery, Hakushu, in the forests of southern Japan.

Hibiki 12 is a blend of more than 30 whiskies, malt from these two distilleries, as well as grain from Suntory’s lesser known Chita Distillery. Some have been aged in Mizunara, a rare Japanese oak, others in casks previously used to mature plum liqueur, umeshu. The whiskies have been aged a minimum of 12 years, some as much as 30 years. The blended whisky undergoes a process of bamboo charcoal filtering.

Hibiki 12 and its kin, the Hibiki 17, 21, and 30 year olds, have taken blending to a high art in Japan, and their cache of awards from global competitions means they often outclass whatever the rest of the world, including Scotland, has on offer. Japanese whisky is far from a novelty any longer. Hibiki is clear, harmonious evidence of that.


Snow Country, Nobel winner Yasunari Kawabata‘s 1947 novel, is a story encased by its setting, a mountainous hot springs resort located to the west of the Japan Alps and noted for its heavy snowfalls. Today it is an hour by train from Tokyo. At the time of the story the town was much more isolated, offering a distant escape for a Tokyo man seeking a sensuous respite from his wife and family.

Shimamura is making his second visit there when the novel opens. He is anxious to reunite with Komako, a young geisha still in training, who is both attracted to and wary of the man. She remembers how much she hated to see him leave the first time he visited. But theirs is a tumultuous relationship that never seems to settle long enough to satisfy them both. It allows the reader moments of great tenderness contrasted with impetuous anger fuelled by the woman’s drinking.Through it all we are never certain of Shimamura’s motivation. Does he want companionship or something more? Does he even experience love, either towards his wife or Komako? Why does he return to visit Komako a third time? A distinctly Japanese sensibility overrides the narrative. Admirers of the book often compare it to haiku. Kawabata is not so much telling a story as he is defining a space in which characters and nature interact, slowly unveiling some inner truths.There are exquisite visual moments, all the more powerful for their restraint. The novel deliberately slows the reader and encourages absorbing the narrative one sentence at a time. Think of it as sensual uplift, rather like fine Japanese whisky in a beautifully crafted bottle.


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The Whisky:   Nikka Whisky from the Barrel

The Book:   A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oë

This excellent Japanese blend is in need of an innovative work of Japanese fiction. Something beyond geishas and cherry blossoms, yet not the whirlwind of Murakami. I suggest an intriguing work by a writer who reshaped Japanese literature following WWII.

Nikka from the Barrel is a simply-packaged, yet multi-dimensional dram. A Personal Matter is a simply told tale, yet bold and uncompromising. I see the whisky as a moderating influence on what could be a maddening read.


Single malt fanatics balk at the idea of blended whisky, but a well-made blend can be as rewarding as top tier single malt. Cast off the additional prejudice that Japan couldn’t possible produce whisky to rival anything coming out of the distilleries of Scotland, and you are in for a treat.

Nikka from the Barrel, in fact, has a distinctly Scottish temperament. Not surprising, given the fact that Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Nikka (and often called the Father of Japanese Whisky), studied the art of whisky distilling in Scotland and brought back that knowledge (together with a Scottish wife) to Japan in the 1920s. Today Nikka operates two of the approximately ten distilleries active in Japan. Whereas in other parts of the world blended whisky commonly brings together whiskies produced in a variety of distilleries under multiple ownerships, often far removed from each other, in Japan the practice is for blends to be produced ‘in house’ so to speak, using a range of products from the distilleries of a single owner.

Nikka from the Barrel is a coming together of grain and malt whiskies from Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery and malt from its Yoichi distillery (pictured). The matured whiskies are married, then re-casked for a further time in first-fill bourbon casks. The result is an enriched blend, with malt characteristics predominating. Presented in a stubby, unpretentious 50cl screw-top bottle, it’s terrific value for the money.

And how does it rate? In a word, it’s a standout.

The colour of dark warm oak in the glass. A rewarding spicy nose with aromas of caramel and woodgrain. Lovely. Fine sherried  palate arousal. Very pleasant spice heat further flavoured with chocolate and brown sugars. Yet not overly sweet. A finish that warms mouth and heart in equal portions.  (51.4%)


Whisky swirls about this book repeatedly. Often it is Johnnie Walker and often is not savoured, but consumed solely for the purpose of intoxication. A more thoughtful, measured approach to the dram on the part of the reader is recommended!

The central character, Bird (a childhood nickname), is a self-centred malcontent, unhappily married and dreaming of cutting all ties to his present life and rushing off to Africa. In the meantime he escapes into the abyss of the bottle.

However, there is no escaping the consequences of his fathering a son born with what is believed to be a herniated brain. This is the story at the centre of the novel. The boy has no chance of survival unless he undergoes an expensive operation, and at that is given little chance of anything resembling a normal existence. Even some doctors see the child’s death as the best course of events. The money for the operation, of course, would consume Bird’s savings for his African getaway. This begins his spiral into moral chaos. He loses his job as a teacher in a “cram school”, binges on sex and alcohol with an ex-girlfriend, and all the while his wife and child lie in hospital. Decisions have to be made, and Bird’s thinking around how to solve his problems is anything but uplifting.

Bird is in many ways despicable. Yet the reader is gripped by his dilemma and how much the author is willing to invest in him. One can only think the book was an unnerving piece of fiction when it was published in Japan in 1964, distant as it is from classical Japanese literature. My sense is that even today such a story would be met with stony silence by most publishers, especially in North America, so far removed is it from what the marketers would think of as a saleable novel.

In his work Oë is credited with dealing with the weight of Japan’s shame following WWII, and this novel, likely his best known outside Japan, is unabashedly direct in its portrayal of moral drift.

All this with the added caveat that Kenzaburo Oë himself is the father of a son brain-damaged at birth. So what we have is a novel very much influenced by the true life experiences of the writer. The interplay of imagination and the author’s own experience bring to the reading of the book a fascinating and compelling dimension that ultimately leads nowhere and in another sense leads everywhere.

The 1994 Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oë puts it simply: “I am writing about the dignity of human beings.” How he reaches that goal in A Personal Matter makes for a remarkable piece of modern literature.

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