When Marcin Miller made his first visit to Japan in the late 1990s, he had never tried Japanese whisky.
At the time, he was publisher of Whisky Magazine and looking to launch the magazine’s first whisky show in Tokyo, out of a worry that adding to the already large number of London festivals would be stepping on too many people’s toes.
And so, he found himself on a plane going for the first of what would become many visits.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if it will be rude if I just drink gin?'” he told me in a recent interview. “But as soon as my feet hit the ground I was blown away by the people, the food and the drink.”
Marcin is a well-known figure in the world of whisky. He was a launch publisher of Whisky Magazine in 1998 before going on to set up his own businesses in communications (Quercus) and importation of whisky (Number One Drinks) and can often be found at events in the UK and overseas.
But it is Marcin’s love of and work in finding rare Japanese whisky that he has become known for, a fact that would no doubt have surprised him when he was on that first trip out east. At the end of this month, he will launch the new Spirit of Asama, bottled at 50.5% and aged for an extra 12 months at Whisky Live Paris and bring it along to the Whisky Show in London the following weekend.
And, he has the ability to inspire others with his love for Japanese drams. I met Marcin at my first experience of the Whisky Exchange Whisky Show back in 2011. The first dram I tried of the festival was Chichibu: The First. It was also my first Japanese whisky experience and it quickly became imprinted in my head as a memorable whisky moment and as my favourite whisky of 2011.
So how did a man who – just over ten years ago – had never been to Japan fall so deeply in love with its whisky products?
It starts with his introduction to David Croll, an Englishman based in Japan who imports Scotch into the country and who runs the version of Whisky Live in Tokyo (now part of the Tokyo International Bar Show), Whisky Mag Japan and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Japan.
David helped ease Marcin into Japanese whisky life during his first visit and their friendship and business relationship continued afterwards. In 2004, Marcin decided to leave Whisky Magazine to pursue other business opportunities and that’s when he says “the penny dropped” about his future opportunities.
“I’d been writing about how amazing Japanese whisky was but most readers hadn’t tried it. David has a business importing Scotch to Japan and I thought I could do the same with Japanese whisky over here,” he said.
He went on the hunt to find whisky from boutique producers and in December 2006 got a call from a bonded warehouse in Japan, which had 600 bottles of Hanyu in its possession.
The bottles had come from the former Hanyu distillery, the stock of which had been bought by Ichiro Akuto, the grandson of the distillery’s founder. Ichiro was in the process of starting up his distillery, Chichibu, and Marcin stepped in to help distribute the bottles from Hanyu, which went on to be the Card Series.
Around the same time, Marcin also started working with Karuizawa distillery, which had recently been bought out by Kirin and become mothballed. The company had stacks of whisky stocks in its warehouses but no clear definition as to what to do with them. In 2007 Marcin went to Karuizawa and tasted 69 single casks to get an idea of what he might be able to work with.
“It became evident that the distillery wasn’t producing and didn’t know what to do with it all. I suggested we would find a way to buy the distillery but they weren’t going to do that,” he told me.
What followed was a lengthy negotiation to buy out the remaining stock to be able to distribute it.
“It took four years to sign a piece of paper. No was going to buy it and we were the only people talking to them about it but it still took four years. If we had not acquiesced to their demands as often as the weather changes on Islay, those last casks would have been poured away,” he said.
Marcin’s determination was spurred on by his love for Karuizawa which he considers his favourite whisky.
“I love the broad-shouldered, hairy assed nature of it. It’s a big whisky, a bold whisky, with loads of umami that was based around the heavily sherried, Macallan model and which reminds me of classic 1970s Springbank or delicious, proper Glenfarclas,” said Marcin.
“And every time you crack open one of these, you’re drinking Japanese liquid history,” he added.
Number One Drinks has now gone on to distribute Karuizawa as both single cask releases and as a single malt called the Spirit of Asama, which is comprised of casks from the end of the distillery’s lifetime (1999/2000) that have been married together in order to offer a less expensive experience of the brand.
While the negotiations with Karuizawa were ongoing, Marcin continued to work with Ichiro Akuto of Chichibu as he got his distillery set up and as the first spirit flowed from the stills in 2008.
Marcin’s interest in working with Ichiro stemmed from the fact he recognised just how much care the distillery owner puts into everything he does, from using Japanese oak for his washbacks (the only ones of its kind) to his desire to start growing Japanese barley on-site (the tradition in Japan is to import malted barley from the UK) and hunting down a source of Japanese peat.
“He has a goal of making the first truly Japanese whisky. He’s very meticulous and he really give a shit – in capital letters – so it tastes as if it’s been hand-crafted,” he explained.
Chichibu: The First was released – as I mentioned above – in 2011, debuting at Whisky Live Paris before making its way to the Whisky Exchange Whisky Show where I tried it. What shocked most people was the fact it was only three years old but showed so much depth and maturity. It has been highly lauded and was voted as the best Japanese whisky of 2011 by Whisky Advocate.
Since then, Marcin’s company – Number One Drinks – has continued to be the sole distributor worldwide of Chichibu, Hanyu and Karuizawa.
Going forward, he said he is going to look into what new things he can work wtih, such as craft beer. But the key point? It will be Japanese craft beer he imports, helping to continue the love affair he began with Japan 15 years ago.