Review: Whisky Rising by Stefan Van Eycken

Stefan Van Eycken has distilled over a decade and a half of Japanese whisky research into ‘Whisky Rising: The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distilleries of Japan’. Its an invaluable tool for the whisky novice and expert, consumers or industry insiders alike.

Stefan Van Eycken is the real deal. He grew up in Belgium and Scotland before moving to Japan in 2000. He was the editor of Nonjatta, for many years the only reliable online source of information about Japanese whisky. He is currently the Japan regional editor of Whisky Magazine UK, and a regular contributor to Whisky Magazine Japan and France. He’s the man behind the ‘Ghost Series’, an ongoing series of bottlings of rare Japanese whiskies, and ‘Spirits for Small Change’, a biannual whisky charity event. Since 2012 he has also been on the Japanese panel of the World Whiskies Awards.

This impressive CV makes him the perfect person to write the definitive guide to Japanese Whisky, which is precisely what he has done. Whisky Rising is the most in-depth almanac on Japanese whisky ever produced in the English language. The 400-page tome is a celebration of the intrigue and mystery of Japan and the whisky produced here, chock-full of information with new insights and data on almost every page.

Whisky Rising is not an armchair writer’s take on Japanese whisky written from overseas by someone googling info. It is exceptionally well-researched and mind-blowingly thorough. The book is filled with interviews, anecdotes, historical comparisons and details only obtainable through an intimate familiarity with Japan, its whisky, and the people who make it. There is much original research in this book that is not available from reading the promotional pieces offered by the distilleries themselves, nor from the myriad of online whisky blogs. Such a detailed history of Japanese whisky has not been written before in any language, including Japanese. Typically, most attempts deal only with the story of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka. The story is much more complex than that. 

The book is intelligently and systematically laid out, and does its best to remain impartial. Van Eycken begins by discussing the format and structure of the book as well as what the reader can expect. During this introduction, he highlights the recent Japanese whisky explosion. He also explains that the Japanese distilleries are in separate camps, making all their own whiskies and not sharing them for blends, quite distinct from the cooperation associated with Scotch production. However, this ffeds into the Japanese culture of kaizen, continuous improvement. 

The body of the tome is split into three main sections: 

On the Way: A History of Japanese Whisky – From the earliest beginnings to the modern-day, the author weaves a narrative rich with personalities, macroeconomics, fashion and engrossing twists of fate. The historical recounting brings to light the factors underlying the present-day state of Japanese whisky, including the current explosion.

The Stills: Japanese Distilleries Past and Present – The meat of the book describes 20 individual distilleries, from the well-known Suntory (Yamazaki, Hakushu, Chita), and Nikka (Yoichi, Miyagikyo) to the less famous but equally fascinating Akkeshi and Shizuoka. The technical aspects are covered in detail. with the nuts and bolts broken down into easy-to-understand pieces, including interviews with the key people behind the whiskies.

Drinking Japanese Whisky – Insight into Japanese whisky culture with sections on how the Japanese consume whisky, tasting notes on legendary bottles, iconic series, bar recommendations and ten cocktails created by Takayuki Suzuki and Hiroyasu Kayama exclusively for the book. 

There is also a postscript, ‘Japan Inspires’, which spotlights two US distilleries that have taken cues from the production methods and traditions of Japan. It serves to illustrate just how comprehensive Van Eycken made Whisky Rising.

The gathering of all of this proprietary material by Van Eycken is nothing short of a miracle. Distillery representatives have even cross-checked the information inside for accuracy. The level of detail is inordinately impressive – it’s almost as if he got hold of the technical schematics for the stills. The interviews with the Chief Blenders is something rarely seen, even in books on Scotch or Irish Whisky. It is a testament to the relationships Van Eycken has cultivated that he has been allowed to publish this magnitude of data given the highly competitive and secretive nature of the Japanese Whisky industry. 

Whisky Rising is a high-quality tome, even beyond the page itself. The binding is of the same calibre as the content, so the book feels good in the hand and will stand the test of time even in a well-thumbed library. Beautiful design ornamentation and high-quality paper stock give it ‘collector’s item’ quality and a rustic feel. The book is gorgeously illustrated in full colour. There are photographs of the distilleries and their landscapes, as well as, of course, the legendary bottlings. For those of you unable to make the pilgrimage to these hallowed places, then this is the next best thing. Van Eycken has also turned up some fascinating archival material, such as old advertisements and bottles of defunct products. Several of the charts and graphs, such as the Suntory single malts timeline or the list of Ichiro’s Malts from Chichibu and Hanyu, will be valuable references for years to come. 

What I found most unusual about this whisky book was how hard it was to put down. It would be easy for this book to descend into academic styling. There’s certainly plenty of technical info here to keep the experts interested (still size, arm configuration, etc.) but it achieves this depth without ever becoming pedantic. The book is replete with amusing anecdotes that humanize the potentially dry facts and histories. The overall tone is captivating and keeps you turning page after page. It would be easy to drift all over the place on this topic. Yet, the writer (with help, evidently, from editor Pam Hoenig) has kept it reigned in and continues​ to hold your attention. Like a good dram, the brilliance is in the balance. The book has helped harden my belief that Japanese (and indeed all) whisky should be, well, actually consumed! I look forward to the end of this period of hoarding and flipping.

There is no real competition for this book. For many years the only printed resource about Japanese whisky in English was Ulf Buxrud’s Japanese Whisky: Facts, Figures & Taste. It was published in 2008 and given away free with a subscription to ‘Whisky Magazine’. This was just before the Japanese whisky renaissance and is now both out-of-print and out-of-date. From a similar period Henrik Aflodals book, Whisky Japan, was only ever released in Swedish. The only one that comes close is Dominic Roskrow’s Whisky Japan, published in 2016 by Kodansha. The book has a large print format that lets Roskrow showcase some truly gorgeous photographs. However, the tasting notes in Roskrow’s work are thin and he overrelies on a rather unhelpful flavour wheel. 

The only real drawback to Whisky Rising is the relatability of some of its content. The limited availability and the high cost of the rare bottles highlighted in Part 3 presents an obstacle to anyone hoping to taste these spirits. Many of these pop up only via auctions or private sales. Even basic entry-level expressions can be in scarce supply. A section on the more readily available Japanese whiskies would have been helpful and would increase the accessibility of the book and the subject – which is really what Van Eycken wants. 

Things are changing quickly in Japanese whisky. Since the book was published, several new distilleries have been founded. On Page 75 there is a photo of Nikka’s current Taketsuru line-up. Sadly, all four of those whiskies are gone as of 31 March 2020, replaced by a new no age statement Taketsuru. On the positive side, a number of new fantastic whisky bars have popped up, such as Aloha Whisky Bar in Ikebukuro. Regardless, the book will prove its use for many years to come.

If you refuse to overpay for once-common whiskies or fight for a limited bottling at a Whisky Festival, this book may reinvigorate you and leave you ready to discover a dram once more. This fascinating, informative, engagingly readable book is a must-have for any whisky enthusiast’s library. Whether a connoisseur of Japanese whisky, or a curious newcomer, your bookshelf is not complete without this book.

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