“He’s been at the kummel again,” the world-weary butler sighed deeply. He was a regular customer at the Knightsbridge wine merchant where I was assistant manager. Every week, he’d turn up in a black Range Rover and buy a case of this liqueur for his dipsomaniac charge, who he referred to with heavy irony as “the young master”. Our shop got through more Kummel than any other in the country. This went on for weeks until one night a dishevelled-looking youth ran into the shop waving a £20 note and screamed the word “kummel” over and over again until we gave him a bottle. He ran out, never to be seen again. It was clearly the young master, but what was this drink that had such a hold on him?
Why does no one make vodka this good?, I thought as I tried the sublime colourless liquid. I was at the Glenfarclas distillery on Speyside sampling their new make spirit (it cannot legally be called whisky until it has been aged for a minimum of three years but in Glenfarclas’ case it will be aged for much longer in former sherry casks). I’d assumed that most of the flavour in whisky came from the barrels but this liquid had so much character. There was a bready, beery quality that is hardly discernable in the aged spirit.
Vodka’s highest calling, in contrast, seems to be absolute (or perhaps that should be Absolut) tastelessness. Russian Standard vodka bills itself as: ‘ultra-clean, smooth & delicious’ and made from ‘pure glacial water from the frozen north.’ The marketing guff for premium vodkas always concentrates on smoothness, purity, and how many times they have been distilled and charcoal-filtered. It’s the adman’s dream, a product with no distinctive flavour to get in the way of the marketing.
Until the mid-19th century most Russian and Polish vodkas would have been made much like whisky. This changed in 1895 when Czar Alexander III made vodka a state monopoly. Distillation switched to the recently invented rectification column which produces a stronger, purer and blander spirit. This neutral industrial spirit, only a whisper away from pure ethanol, became the model for vodka around the world. Happily for the discerning drinker there are a few companies doing things the old way. One is Vestal Vodka from Poland who produce highly-distinctive vodkas from potatoes. You can really taste the potato but also distinct notes of spice, fruit, caramel and pepper with a creamy texture. You must drink them cool rather than ice cold. Most of their vodkas are not only vintage, ie from a single potato harvest, but also from a single variety of spud. These are vodkas that can compete with wine for complexity and sense of place.
It’s interesting to see if whisky might go down the same route. The barley in Scotch can come from anywhere – the only terroir qualities come from the climate and the water – but some distilleries are returning to local raw materials. A new distillery, Ballindalloch just up the road from Glenfarclas (full disclosure – the master distiller Charles Smith is my uncle), have just started distilling from barley grown on their estate but won’t have anything to sell for a good few years. Perhaps they should sell a little vodka until their spirit matures. Vestal produce a vodka aged in sherry-seasoned barrels which has something of the single malt about it. Soon we won’t be able to tell where vodka ends and whisky begins. These are confusing times for booze traditionalists but with spirits this good, who really cares?
Whisky traditionalists will be in for a shock when they visit the Highlander Inn at Craigellachie. For, alongside an exhaustive list of whiskies from all over Scotland – some exceedingly rare – there’s a sizeable selection from Japan. This is because the head barman was for many years a certain Tatsuya Minagawa of Kyoto. After a spell abroad, Minagawa returned to the Highlander in January this year but this time as the owner.
This link between Japan and Scotland has an illustrious history. In 1918, Masataka Taketsuru made the journey to learn the secret of distillation. He studied chemistry at Glasgow University and then worked as an apprentice at two distilleries, Hazelburn and Longmorn. While in Scotland he met and married Rita Cowan – much to both families’ disapproval. He returned to Japan with his wife and founded Nikka, a company that, along with Suntory, is one of the pillars of the Japanese whisky industry. He built two distilleries: Yoichi, on Hokkaido, and Myagikyo on Honshu. A fictionalised version of their story was broadcast earlier this year on Japanese television called Massan with Charlotte Kate Fox playing a character based on Rita Cowan and Tetsuji Tamayama as the godfather of Japanese whisky.
It’s a familiar story, the Japanese student coming to Britain to learn how to make a product and then returning home to make it better. A similar thing happened with the British motorcycle industry just after the war when representatives from Kawasaki and others toured Triumph. The nascent Japanese whisky industry was built on Scottish components: Scottish stills, Scottish barley and even, it is alleged, Scottish water, were shipped to Japan. Likewise, the Scotch whisky industry has been complacent about foreign competition. The historian, literary critic and whisky aficionado David Daiches once wrote: “Whether any country will ever be able to produce a Scotch-type whisky that is really comparable to genuine Scotch whisky in nature and quality remains doubtful.”
Well, Daiches, now deceased, would have a pleasant surprise if he could try the Nikka Pure Malt Black, a blend from Taketsuru’s two distilleries. It combines chocolatey richness with fiery pepper and great purity of flavour. He’d probably have fallen out of his chair last November when the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 won theWhisky Bible whisky of the year, the first time this award has been won by a non-Scotch. Jim Murray, the chairmen of the judges, described it as a “wake-up call” for the Scotch industry.
I think the Scots relish the competition with the Japanese. There’s a mutual respect between the two industries. What must have really stung was that the top-placed European whisky was the Chapter 14 Not Peated, which is from England! You’d be a brave man to order that at the Highlander.
This originally appeared in the Guardian. I stumbled on the story whilst researching my book. This involved tasting lots of whisky and grilling my Uncle, Charles Smith, who is a big cheese in the whisky world. The photo below was taken at the Ballindaloch a new distillery where he is master distiller.