Van’s Note: Van Bryan here, Jeff Brown’s longtime managing editor. Today, we have something a little different to share on this Thanksgiving holiday in the United States…
As longtime readers may recall, Jeff lived and worked abroad for two decades, with much of that time spent in Tokyo, Japan. In this essay, Jeff shares one of his favorite personal experiences from that time… and a “missed” opportunity that put a big smile on his face.
So please, read on to enjoy this special edition of The Bleeding Edge…
Living and working in a great city like Tokyo comes with the benefit of having the world’s best products and services available at your fingertips. And in Japan, there is an inconspicuous and refined nature to what might normally be presented with great fanfare.
Amid the cacophony of bright lights and electronics, some of the best restaurants and stores are quietly tucked away – almost as if in an effort not to stand out.
One of my favorite spots was my local bottle shop in the town of Ebisu (恵比寿) in Tokyo, which I was fortunate enough to call home for almost two decades.
On any given Friday night or Saturday afternoon, after a terribly busy week of work and travel in Asia, I enjoyed a solitary walk into town to buy a bottle of nihonshu (日本酒 – which is what most people call “sake”), shōchū (焼酎 – distilled from rice, barley, potato, or brown sugar), or whisky.
Whisky in Japan might come as a surprise to some, but Japan loves its whisky. The availability of Scottish single malt whisky in Japan is better than anywhere I’ve ever seen in the world. I felt spoiled by the sheer breadth and depth of what was available.
And of course, there was a wide range of Japanese whisky available as well. Japan is known for mastering blended whisky with remarkably smooth tastes. They’re fantastic, but I have always been drawn to the distinct flavors presented by single malts.
Which is why a particular bottle caught my eye one evening…
Unlike Anything I’d Tasted Before
It was a single malt whisky from the old Hanyu distillery outside of Tokyo. I knew that distillery had been shuttered, which is what made the bottle so interesting.
As it turns out, the grandson of the founder of the Hanyu distillery purchased all the remaining barrels of the then-defunct distillery. The grandson, Ichiro Akuto, was in the process of building a new distillery – the Chichibu distillery – and was bottling the old 2000 vintage, its final vintage, which was 10 years old at the time.
After inquiring about Ichiro’s Hanyu “final vintage,” I bought both bottles on the shelf. They cost about $80 a bottle at the time, well above what was normal. But I’m always excited to try something I haven’t had before.
It was spectacular. Unlike anything I had ever tasted before in Japan. In fact, it quickly became one of my very favorites. Those bottles weren’t on the shelf every week, but when I saw them, I bought them all. It was fantastic. I simply couldn’t believe something this good was selling at that price.
I remember bringing a bottle of the final vintage with me on a trip to Scotland. A group of my friends traveled there to see the country, play a round of golf, hunt a Scottish red stag by foot in the highlands, experience a traditional driven grouse hunt, eat haggis, fish, and of course, drink whisky.
One evening, we met with the master distiller of Johnnie Walker, who had held that post for 20 years. He brought with him a bunch of whiskies for us to try, and of course, I had my special bottle from Japan. It was an understatement to say that he was impressed. He couldn’t believe where it came from.
Over the course of a year or so, I gave a few bottles to friends and business colleagues when I had them. I had the pleasure to share bottles with even more. I travelled with bottles when I returned to the U.S. And every week I’d stop into my favorite shop to see if there was more.
About a year after my discovery, the availability became less frequent. I started to search other shops with some luck, but it wasn’t easy work.
And then, one day, it was gone. After all, it was the final vintage.
A Potential 4,300% Return
In the back of my head, I knew the day would come. I just didn’t want to think about it. Each bottle was hand numbered. How many bottles in total? How close were we to the end? I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know.
More than a year after that a friend of mine reminded me of the bottle I gave him and I thought to check if by some miracle I could find it selling somewhere. I did, at a famous auction house in Hong Kong… for about $3,500 a bottle.
Had I simply held those beautiful bottles for less than two years, I would have been sitting on roughly a 4,300% return. It was one of the most obvious investments I have ever come across. I deeply understood the quality and how undervalued it was, and there was absolute scarcity. There were only so many barrels left.
And yet when I saw the bottle listed at the auction house, it put a big smile on my face. And I had a big laugh, the kind that comes from deep in your belly.
While I miss the vintage dearly, I got great pleasure when it was available. And I was able to share it with friends.
Part of a Life Well Lived
I’ve often wondered about how much fun it would be to create something that good – a fantastic whisky or bourbon – and have the fortitude and resolve to conserve its maturation over the course of a decade.
One thing I know is that I would want my finished product to be enjoyed. I wouldn’t want it to sit on a shelf as if it were a trophy. I’d much rather know that it was being appreciated, celebrated, and part of life among people who care about one another… A part of life well lived.
So I won’t regret enjoying those fabulous bottles while they lasted. I won’t regret enjoying life with family and friends.
And I hope you, my dear subscribers, have the chance to enjoy a nice bottle or two of whatever tickles your fancy with family and friends over the holidays.
I, for one, am thankful that I have you. You’ve empowered me to have a platform from which my team and I can have a positive impact on so many lives.
It’s a job that we take very seriously, and fortunately, it’s one that we enjoy. And it’s definitely one that benefits from a good, stiff drink every once in a while.
For my U.S.-based subscribers… Happy Thanksgiving! And for my international subscribers, here’s a toast to a wonderful holiday season this year.
We have so much to look forward to.
Editor, The Bleeding Edge
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