Interview with Dave Broom, Author of The Way of Whisky
Glaswegian Dave Broom has been writing about spirits for 25 years, written a dozen books or so books, won numerous awards and is widely acknowledged to be a bit of an expert on all things alcohol.
Shortly after first discovering Japanese whisky in the late 90s whilst editing Whisky Magazine, Dave took a trip to the Yamazaki distillery in Japan and was (in his own words) 'hooked instantly'.
Fast forward to 2017 and Dave releases The Way of Whisky - A Journey Around Japanese Whisky, a book which captures his passion and respect for Japanese culture and offers readers a fascinating and personal exploration into Japanese whisky culture and the traditions and philosophies which surround it.
Stunning photography from Tokyo-based Kohei Take adds an extra dimension and their combined talents makes this book something a little bit special.
With a host of prestigious awards already under his belt (including several Glenfiddich awards) it comes as no surprise that Dave has received high praise for The Way of Whisky and bagged the André Simon Food and Drink Book Awards John Avery Award.
Without further ado, let's find out a bit more from Dave about his adventures into the world of Japanese whisky. Kanpai!
What first sparked your interest in spirits and can you give us an overview of your journey to becoming an expert?
I started my life in drink by working in a wine and spirits merchant, then ran a pub before becoming features editor on a drinks trade weekly. This was in the late 1980s when interest in spirits was beginning to rise thanks to the growth in single malt and the arrival of the new wave of cocktail bars. I had to learn about spirits in order to write educational as well as business features and was soon hooked.
When I went freelance after a brief spell working in Australian wineries I returned to the UK and began specialising in spirits.
I’d never describe myself as an expert. Every glass teaches you something new. You will never know everything. There’s a Japanese term shoshin which means ‘beginner’s mind’. It’s how I approach spirits.
You’ve written successful books about other spirits, when did you first become interested in Japanese whisky?
I first tasted Japanese whisky when I began writing for Whisky Magazine in the late 1990s and was intrigued by its quality and different character. I visited Japan in 2000 and on that first day found myself at Yamazaki distillery. I was hooked instantly.
How does Japanese whisky compare to whisky from other countries?
It has an intensity of aroma and a clear precision which sets it apart from other whiskies. I often use the term ‘transparency’, meaning that you can pick out all of the flavours very clearly. It is also never showy and loud, but restrained in its complexities. The easiest way is to pour a glass of Japanese single malt and one of Scotch and compare them yourself!
Can you tell us about the planning process for your trip?
I wanted to write a book which tried to unravel what makes Japanese whisky ‘Japanese’. As well as visiting the distilleries and bars I wanted to establish whether there were links with other Japanese traditional crafts.
Organising the distillery visits took some time, but as I had great relationships with the distillers it was relatively straightforward. Getting access to and even discovering the craftspeople was more complex and I am indebted to friends and colleagues for their suggestions. Ultimately there was also an element of serendipity - being in the right place at the right time with the right people.
Did you face any challenges during your travels around Japan?
Not really. Japan is a fantastic place to visit - the transport links are excellent, the hotels superb, the people friendly.
If you could pick a few highlights from your trip what would they be?
Meeting my collaborator - the photographer Kohei Take. We’d never met but became instant friends. I couldn’t have done the book without him. He was the one who introduced all manner of new elements (often about food) and his pictures bring the ideas behind the book, and the people we talked to, come alive.
All the distillers were so helpful and generous with their time and each visit was a highlight, but I’d add in finding a cup in a soba house near Chichibu which just personified the quality of shibui (simple beauty). It’s here in front of me now.
Also meeting Eriko Horiki and her comment that today’s tradition is the innovation of the past just as innovation of today is the tradition of tomorrow. It became a key to a deeper understanding of a Japanese approach to craft.
Finding out about seasons with Suntory’s Shinji Fukuyo and Kirin’s Jota Tanaka and how that manifests itself in whisky… there’s so many!
You’ve visited countless whisky bars in Japan. What qualities do you think make for a great experience?
Hospitality. You're always guaranteed a great experience as a customer even if you only drink a glass of water. The world could learn a huge amount from the attention to service and understanding the needs of the customer that you get in Japan.
What do you think the future holds for Japanese whisky?
It's in a good place in the long term. Distilleries are expanding, there are more new players and the world is thirsty for their wares.
In the medium term there are still issues with stock shortages which means that it will be less widely available than everyone would like.
The issue of legislation also desperately needs to be addressed. Tighter controls along the same lines as those for Scotch whisky are needed to ensure that consumers know what the term ‘Japanese whisky’ means. The designation is far too loose at the moment.