James Bond and Japan’s Understated Whisky Craftsmanship
Japan can seem like an isolated world unto itself. As an island nation that has historically kept to itself with rigid hierarchy and time-honored traditions, Japan can seem enigmatic to foreigners. Japanese attention to detail is legendary, not just in its automotive or electronic sectors, but especially in their drinking habits. Sharing a drink with Japanese is rarely a casual affair. From traditional green tea-ceremonies conducted over hours looking out onto the serenely groomed Japanese gardens to the end of the year drinking parties that progressively allow colleagues to unwind in very uncharacteristically open ways, Japanese have a unique attachment to their beverages.
Having grown up in Japan with Southern Baptist missionary parents, my appreciation of Japanese beverages included decidedly non-alcohol selections . Exotic bubbly “fruit” drinks like melon soda with neon-green qualities that resembled my favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles more than a fruit or the “world famous” royal milk tea that many Southerners would easily appreciate as a variety on their own sweet ice tea, was the extent of my Japanese beverage knowledge when I left Japan. Only after coming back as a young professional did I begin to fully appreciate the adult drinks I had been missing all along. It was a new world of sake, Japan’s traditional rice wine, which depending on the waters sources high into the Japanese alps brought out different flavors that helped ring in the New Year at temples where new barrels were ceremonially opened together to inaugurate publicly or could be enjoyed in the privacy of one’s hot springs in cold or hot form. Sapporo beer named after my adopted hometown in northern Japan along with almost every other adult beverage had its own intriguing story as much as the establishments where they were served, along with vending machines where they could be sold to the delight of foreign tourists.
However my heart was won over in one of the most iconic bars in all of Japan that will soon be disappearing. Tokyo’s Hotel Okura’s convenient location across from the U.S. Embassy and just a few minutes’ walk from the Japanese parliament, the Diet, made it one of the most important meeting spots during the Cold War for dealmakers and politicians before newer hotels began to sprout up nearby. As I walked into the understated lobby with its open design and simple lines for the first time, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by its first floor Orchid Bar which is said to have been where James Bond’s Tokyo adventures began with his famous martini, shaken and not stirred. Whether or not it actually was a part of the books or films, its role as inspiration is immediately obvious with smoke-filled backrooms dimly lit with black-tie waiters harkening back to the 1960s. Just like when Tokyo first held the Olympics in 1964 in what became its heyday of economic growth, today the Okura is going through a facelift in preparation for Tokyo’s second Olympics coming in 2020.
My first encounter with Japanese whisky came in the Orchid Bar where a former boss and mentor ordered Japanese single malt for us. He ordered it frozen in a shaker but not diluted with ice. He compared it to a designer Japanese car that is beautifully crafted, smooth, and always pleasant. Embarrassed that I didn’t know more about Japanese whisky that he kept raving about from my adopted homeland, I asked how a Scottish-origin spirit could be considered Japanese. He smiled saying that the Japanese may not have invented it, but had mastered it through innovation and attention to detail. Having known no other whisky at this point in my life, Japanese whisky became my gold standard by which I judged all others. Interestingly just recently my own subjective taste buds were validated by whisky’s most discerning experts bestowing on Japan the prestigious title of having the world’s best whiskey.
Having gone through two lost decades of unmemorable stagnation, Japan appears to be back thanks to the leadership of Prime Minister Abe who just won another landslide victory that has given him a mandate for structural changes. Therefore, it is only fitting that Japanese whisky acquire the same reputation for excellence that its cars and electronics already enjoy. This time rather than cheering Japan with the more traditional sake for health and prosperity in the New Year, I will be going “new school” with a glass of Japan’s very best whisky in the remaining time left in the original and decidedly “old school” Okura Orchid bar. Because of where I had my first taste, I’ve ever since associated whisky with Japan and the Orchid Bar in the Hotel Okura that I now frequent every time I’m back in Tokyo in anticipation of renovations. Hopefully like Japan today and its spirits, the bar and hotel will be mastered through innovation and redesign.
Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and previously served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State. He is a contributor to War on the Rocks and the views expressed are his own.
Photo credit: Francis Bourgouin