“Whisky was an interesting, mysterious thing – twinkling at the back bar under the spotlights in beautiful deep-amber colored bottles.” – Yumi Yoshikawa
Yumi Yoshikawa is the brand ambassador for Venture Whisky Ltd., the company founded by Chichibu creator Ichiro Akuto.
Having honed her interest in whisky in both Japan and behind the bar at the Highlander Pub in Speyside, Yumi went on to work promoting whiskies from her home country.
In this Whisky Women interview, she discusses what whiskies inspired her early on, why women are a good influence on the whisky industry and how Japanese whisky is different.
How did you first get interested in whisky?
When I was working as a bartender, the bar had a good selection of whiskies, although whisky wasn’t so popular at that time in Japan. It’s considered as a granddad’s drink. However for me, whisky was an interesting, mysterious thing – twinkling at the back bar under the spotlights in beautiful deep-amber colored bottles. I wanted to know the surroundings of these whiskies, which I knew I couldn’t get from just reading books, so I started traveling around Scotland and visiting distilleries. After that, I don’t really remember why but gradually, like whisky in a cask, I’ve being maturing as a whisky person!
What was one of the first whiskies that inspired you?
That’s difficult to choose one! Name-wise, it’s definitely Glentauchers. I had no idea how to pronounce it so I never forget it afterwards.
But I do think Japanese whisky inspired me a lot. Around early 2000s, Japanese whisky wasn’t paid attention to like it is nowadays, even in Japan. Actually, I was one of the people who’d been trying Scottish whiskies but not Japanese ones. I still remember at the bar I was working at my manager said to hide the Japanese whisky behind the shelf. I know it’s silly but at the time that was the kind of mood in Japan. One day while I was working in Scotland, I tried some Hakushu whisky and was really surprised by its refined quality. Then I realized that I was born and grew up in the wonderful whisky making country and appreciated the people who have been keep trying making quality whisky even in difficult times for them.
You spent two years working at the popular Highlander pub in Craigellachie in Scotland – how did you end up there and what did you love most about Scotland?
When I moved to Scotland, I took my CV with my everywhere I traveled around Scotland – it was my version of job-hunting. I gave it to places related to whisky in particular, like liquor shops, whisky bars and distilleries. Of course, it wasn’t easy and I failed again and again, including at The Highlander the first time. A few weeks after my first visit to Craigellachie, however, I got a phone call from The Highlander saying they had a vacancy. The only problem? That same day I also got an offer from Bruichladdich! I couldn’t give them up so I spoke to both Jim (at Bruichladdich) and Duncan (at The Highlander) honestly and got both!
How did you come to work at Chichibu?
My first visit to Chichibu distillery was in 2008 as an ordinary visitor. At that time, Ichiro hasn’t started making whisky yet and the facility was brand new. I thought, ‘If only I could work for this distillery…’
However, I also thought it would be better to gain more experience before applying for a job. I moved to New York and later to Scotland, but every year, I’d send a Christmas car to Ichiro so he wouldn’t forget who I was. My tactics worked as I got a job there when I returned to Japan!
What do you love most about what you do?
Meeting whisky loving people! I always enjoy talking and sharing nice drams and ideas with whisky lovers. And of course, introducing our products from Chichibu distillery.
What achievement are you most proud of in your career?
It’s the tasting challenge I set myself at The Highlander. When I started working there, I decided to try 200 whiskies and make serious tasting notes over a 4-month period. Normally, I like enjoying whisky without taking notes but I kept it up and it helped me a lot to understand the characters that each distillery has.
Do you feel more women should or could be involved in the whisky industry?
It doesn’t matter if someone is a woman or man if they love whisky, I think. But on the other hand, I also think there are still small numbers of women working and being involved in the whisky industry. I believe women are tough enough (sometimes tougher than men) and we have different points of view to offer, so having more should be a good influence for the whisky industry.
Why would you recommend someone to embark on a career in the whisky industry?
Being involved in the whisky industry and working at a distillery for me is like standing in a middle of the whole whisky industry’s stream, making me think not only about whisky itself but about all the other things that surround it. And it allows you to speak with whisky fans, which is always good fun and continuous discovery.
Why would you recommend someone drink Japanese whisky?
I believe that one of the pleasures of enjoying whisky is seeing the different characters, which each distillery has. Japanese whisky for me has really good ‘Japanese character’ that is different from others. It’s difficult to explain but it has a nice chewy texture, glossy flavor and also makes me feel like I am walking in a Japanese forest.
What is one of your cherished memories of whisky drinking?
I’m trying to find special one but I have so many special moments. But I can say that my most cherished memories always involve my friends. It doesn’t matter where or when, so long as I have good company with whisky.