Continuing our series of armchair travelling (and drinking), writer Harry Seymour considers the whiskey highball, a classic Japanese refreshment that's synonymous with the Park Hyatt Tokyo.
In December 1918, a young, Japanese saké brewer from Hiroshima named Masataka Taketsuru sailed to Scotland. His ambition was to learn the secrets of whisky.
The elusive drink had been known in Japan since 1853, when the American naval commodore Matthew Perry sailed into the capital’s harbour and forced the Shogun to open to international trade — using whisky as one of his crowbars. However, any attempts at domestic production resulted in a disgusting, sticky, brown liquid.
In Scotland, Taketsuru enrolled on a chemistry course at Glasgow University and criss-crossed the Highlands, apprenticing at distilleries and filling notebooks with detailed recipes and intricate sketches of pot stills. By 1923, he had returned to Japan and established the country’s first real distillery amongst Shinto shrines, bamboo groves and crystal streams in Yamazaki, just outside Kyoto.
Almost a century later and I’m sat at the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, on my own mission to uncover the story behind the success of Japanese whisky.
I’m sipping a glass of smooth, 18-year-old Yamazaki whisky made in Taketsuru’s original plant. It’s produced by Suntory, the country’s most popular whisky brand. But until 2003, they remained little known outside Japan.
That all changed thanks to one man, and the bar I am in.
When the American actor Bill Murray played a booze-swilling, mid-life crisis celebrity sent here to film an advert for Suntory in Sofia Coppola’s cult hit Lost in Translation, Japanese whisky became cool overnight. Since then, Japan’s whisky exports have risen fifteen-fold.
‘I was working at the hotel’s Peak Bar at the time,’ says Yasukazu Yokota, the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s F&B Manager. ‘I was there for the filming of one of the scenes, but you can’t see my face,’ he laughs.
Leaning into my sleek, black chair in the dimly lit bar, with Tokyo’s panoramic skyline behind me, I’m offered a lesson in Japanese whisky-drinking etiquette. Unlike in Scotland, where by law whisky must be aged at least three years, in Japan the tipple of choice tends to be un-aged, blended whisky, and it’s traditionally drunk as a Highball (mixed with soda water and ice). Some barmen say a Highball should be stirred clockwise exactly 13 times, which makes me think of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony. Maybe it’s a bit of post-work Zen meditation for salarymen, I wonder.