The word amateur comes to us from the Latin, meaning one who loves, or lover. It implies a complex relationship: If I am an amateur photographer, I love images as objects, as well as the subject of what I see through my lens, so I snap a picture. The picture marries subject to object, and becomes mine. Appreciation, appropriation, creation. The distinctions collapse into unity.
But in common usage, the amateur stops short. The amateur is imitative, derivative, simplistic.
The Japanese are, famously, lovers of whisky. For nearly a century Japanese distillers made whisky that roughly imitated the objects of their affection, namely single malt Scotch. To the world at large, they were amateurs--in both sense of the word--and nothing more. But in the last decade or so Japan has emerged as a global contender with a distinctive, singular style. An often quoted adage comes to mind: Good artists borrow, great artists steal.
And this week, Japan stole the crown right off of Scotland's blushing red head. Japan's first commercial distillery staged a major coup on Monday with The Whisky Bible's announcement of the 2015 World Whisky of the Year: Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013.
Yamazaki opened in 1923, Japan's first commercial distillery, as part of the Suntory conglomerate. And this year marks the first time any kind of whisky other than Scotch has own the award. It took 90 years, but Japan has now taken over whisky officialdom. Justly.
We were first smitten with the Yamazaki 12yr, as well as one of Suntory's other offerings, Hibiki 12 yr, during a storm in 2010. (A long, delicious story, for another time). And while we can't get any bottles of the sold-out crown-winner Cherry Cask 2013, we have been expanding our Japanese whisky selections steadily over the past several years. At the moment, I'm especially fond of the Nikka 12yr for its fruity nose and balanced, spiced toffee palate.
The world of whisky is changing fast, and keeping up is a challenge we accept with full vigor. Especially when there's so much to love. If you haven't found a way to let Japanese whisky into your heart, it might just be high time.