“But the good news is, the whisky works,” says Bill Murray’s stupefied-but-searching Bob Harris to Scarlett Johansson’s somewhat-abandoned-but-searching Charlotte in their first verbal interaction in the 52nd floor New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo.
From that moment on in Sofia Coppola’s funny and touching 2003 film Lost in Translation, spirits take on a major role in the story. Bob Harris is a faded celebrity actor, in Tokyo to be the face for Suntory whisky (specifically, the brand’s fabled Hibiki 17 blended, but more on that in a bit). Charlotte has accompanied her busy and distant photographer husband on a business trip. Both are a little lost in their lives, an untethered emotional state amplified by the familiar-yet-surreal backdrop of Tokyo itself, and by bad cases of jet lag.
It is this “I know this/But I don’t” element (the bar itself a prime example) that makes Japanese whisky an apt co-star in this tale of unlikely mutual attraction, admiration, and budding romance.
Japanese industry has been particularly skilled at taking a traditionally Western product, deconstructing it, and, through its own cultural filters and traditions, adding something unique in the reconstruction process. If you’ve ever driven a Lexus, admired a Grand Seiko timepiece, or leafed through a vintage photography monograph published by Gendai Shicho-Sha, you know what I’m talking about. Takumi is a Japanese philosophy that embodies artisanship and a certain striving for harmony, perfection, and beauty in all craft by a close attention to detail. And Japanese whisky is the successful application of takumi to spirits.
The nation’s own tradition of sake, as nuanced as European vinoculture (if not more so), informed Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii, one of Japan’s fathers of whisky, back in 1923 as he used imported scotch as his model for creating a new locally distilled beverage (then often using imported malted barley). Let me say this, despite the whiff of sacrilege: Except for the fact that it is not produced in Scotland, Japanese whiskey IS scotch. The early examples may have skewed imitative, but over the years the spirit has achieved an appealing clean, crisp flavor spectrum all its own. Both in single malt and blended versions, experiencing it is uniquely, beautifully familiar—but not.
Suntory is the largest whiskey distiller in Japan (Nikka is a close second), and controls brands like Yamazaki and Hakushu (both focusing on single malts) as well as the aforementioned Hibiki and its own Suntory-labelled whiskies (both focusing on blends).
Japanese whisky was doing fine amongst the international cognoscenti, 15 years ago, but its presence in the market was nothing like it is today. Many credit the appearance of Hibiki 17 in the film with the spirit’s current rarity, collectibility, and value (if you can find it, you’ll be paying close to $1,000 a bottle), not to mention the still-growing fascination with Japanese whiskies in general.
As Scarlett (usually with a Western vodka and tonic in hand, at the bar) and Bill get acquainted, and explore the—here it is again—familiar/strange hipster demimonde of Tokyo, they have the occasional beer and some unidentified shots. Bob spends his days coping with the communication snafus of his promotional duties and dealing (remotely) with his married life, while Charlotte immerses herself in more traditional Japanese culture by visiting temples and participating in ikebana (flower arranging).
In their more intimate, bonding scenes (that is, not in the rarefied and surreal world of New York / Not New York, but rather in a quiet hotel room watching an old black-and-white movie on TV), the pair begin to share sake. They feel, it might be said, more at home, where they find themselves. It’s almost as if, once they stop trying to fight and cope with the location of Japan and just surrender to it, they can’t help but be even more drawn to each other.
Newcomers to Japanese whisky, finding it different but somehow familiar, are likely to find themselves similarly seduced.