kenny hodgart

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Scots and Japanese locked in new space race

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

It’s become one of those things people drop into conversations to make themselves sound knowledgeable: Japanese whisky is the best in the world nowadays. Better than the stuff from Ireland and America, don’t you know, and also that place where they make Scotch. Yes, yes: Scotland.

It is true that the Japanese are winning all sorts of awards for their whisky. Most notably, something called the Whisky Bible last year named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, by Suntory, the world’s best whisky, with nary a Scottish entry in the top five.

The ascendancy of Nipponese nips should come as no surprise. For a start, it is well-known that the Japanese are terrible swots and brilliant at copying other people’s things and making them better. And secondly, they’ve been at it for long enough: Suntory was founded in 1923, which is ages ago. Back then, most Scotch was still undrinkable, and most people in Scotland were blind and/or raving mad on account of it.

The sudden popularity of Japanese whisky, catalysed by the whole winning awards thing, was not foreseen, however – even by its distillers. Which is why, as it happens, they’re running out of casks that are ready to bottle.

Meanwhile, the Scots have not taken this reverse lying down. No danger – if the Japanese (and the Taiwanese, whose Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique won best single malt at this year’s World Whiskies Awards) can make proper whisky, then, by the ghost of John Logie Baird, cultivating a little tea is not beyond the ingenuity of my fellow northern Britons.

Earlier this year, a smoky-tasting white tea grown on Scotland’s very first tea plantation, in Perthshire, by The Wee Tea Company, was duly named best tea in the world at the Salon de The awards in Paris. I have no idea why the French consider themselves so expert on the subject, but there you have it: Scotland rules tea.

Now I read that, contrary to the notion of it being the quintessential English drink, Scotland also rules gin. According to the London Times, UK exports of gin are up 37 per cent in five years, largely due to demand for premium tipples from Scottish distilleries, including Hendrick’s and Tanqueray. In Georgian and Victorian times, Londoners drank so much gin it rendered men impotent and women sterile, but seemingly now even that which is labelled “London dry gin” is more likely to originate from Scottish stills than English ones. One can almost hear Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s secessionist First Minister, cackling away.

Now that things are going all “craft” on the gin front, Hong Kong, predictably, has its very own circuit of gin bars run and frequented by men with awful Victorian-sized beards and charging modern-day Shoreditch prices, only doubled. Good luck to them, although the drink’s aptness to induce maudlin tendencies does not, perhaps, commend it altogether in an era of impending economic dissolution.

It has long troubled me, incidentally, that your average Hong Kong barman cannot grasp that gin and tonic is served with lime (or indeed lime juice instead of tonic, if you’re the subaltern in John Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song). All too often lemon, with the wrong gin, introduces an unwelcome hint, I find, of Pocari Sweat – the Japanese sports drink made from Pocaris, that lesser-known member of the citrus family.

I hasten to add here that on its own Pocari Sweat is a faultless beverage and an excellent hangover cure. As such, I can think of no more fitting product to pioneer branding on the moon – as it will next month, when its owner, Otsuka, sends a rocket there with a capsule containing Pocari Sweat, in powder form. The company’s laudable idea is that at some future date, present-day children inspired by the mission to become astronauts will touch down and be able to relieve their hangovers, or perchance simply their thirsts, by mixing the powder with the (currently arid) moon’s own water.

What is not admitted by the Japanese is that their designs are very much part of a beverage-centric space race in the making. The Scots, their principal adversaries, struck an early blow: some vials of unmatured malt from Ardbeg Distillery on Islay have just returned to earth after being transported to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket in October 2011. The whisky had orbited the earth for 1,045 days and was found afterwards by the distillery’s tasters to have a more “intense” flavour, although it’s unlikely they were about to declare “it tastes just the same” after going to all that trouble.

Another other piece of whisky-related news is that Whisky Galore!, the 1949 Ealing comedy set on a remote Scottish island, whose inhabitants appropriate a shipwrecked cargo of whisky, is currently being re-made. I would not be surprised to discover that the whole story has been relocated to space, nor that some role had been found for the Japanese as villains.