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The Great Whisky Debate: Japan vs Scotland

Sarah Tierney puts the strong stuff to the test at this readers event organised by the Boutique Bar Show

Published on August 13th 2010.


The Great Whisky Debate: Japan vs Scotland

Here's a zen-like thought to remember in times of stress: there are 21 million casks of whisky ageing in Scotland as we speak. 21 million oak casks of lovely golden whisky slowly coming to maturity. I find that image strangely reassuring.

It also touched on that other big debate in the whisky world – should you add water?

The whisky tasting hosted by the Boutique Bar Show at Epernay last week was about quality rather than huge, mind-blowing quantities. Though with six shots of whisky per person, it would have been very easy to over-indulge.

Luckily the Confidential readers gathered there were more interested in discussing, comparing and learning about whisky than using it as a fast track to oblivion. The debate asked, Who produces the best whisky – Japan or Scotland? And we spent a very happy two hours trying to answer it.

Representing Scotland was Phil, brand ambassador from The Glenlivet. This distillery is a long-established heavyweight of the whisky world. 'Glenlivet' used to be a by-word for Scottish whisky – distillers all over Speyside were using the name, even if they were located miles from the Glenlivet valley – hence the definite article used to distinguish the original from the rest.

This whisky created such a reputation for itself that King George IV requested some when he visited Scotland in 1822, even though it didn't 'officially' exist. (Opportunist tax laws had driven the whisky industry underground). Nowadays it's the number one whisky in the USA and the second in the world. Quite a contender.

Representing Japan was Zoran from Yamazaki – this distillery is a relative youngster in whisky years with a birth date of 1923. The founding father was a sake producer who travelled to Scotland to learn the whisky trade before taking his know-how back home.

Whisky is now a very big thing in the East. It's a sign of its popularity that Manchester's K2 karaoke bar in Chinatown sells 120 bottles of whisky a week, compared to one-to-two bottles of vodka.

Back in Epernay, the debate was played out through three stages of blind tastings where we'd compare a Yamazaki against a Glenlivet, with the whisky increasing in age in each round. We soon learnt that there wasn't going to be a clear winner – it's about personal preference.

Some like a harsh, medicinal burn at the back of their throat, others like a long, mellow finish. The tasting showed us what to look out for – smell, colour, where it sits in the mouth.

It also touched on that other big debate in the whisky world – should you add water? Both experts gave a resounding 'Yes'. Phil from The Glenlivet said everyone in the whisky industry adds water when drinking socially – it opens up the flavours and cools the burn. Two parts whisky to one part water was his recommendation.

Ice is a different matter. It suppresses the heat but also the aroma and flavour. Having said that, in Japan where they serve whisky with food, they prefer a lighter drink so it's often diluted with water and lots of ice.

At the end of the tasting, we did a hands-up vote on which whisky won each round. Scotland triumphed at 2-1. A few people even proclaimed the final drink – the Glenlivet 21-Year as the nicest whisky they'd ever tasted.

But earlier in the day, the bartenders at Epernay had done a similar tasting and voted Japan their favourite. So we were at an impasse.

When it comes to distillers of this quality, there are no winners and losers. Apart from the possible exception of those who had to get up for work the next morning after sipping their way through six drams. Though even the fuzzy head seemed a fair price to pay for some very fine drinks and an enjoyable evening.

The Great Whisky Debate was organised by The Boutique Bar Show in conjunction with Manchester Confidential. Look out for more readers events coming soon.

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