The Vivacious Couple Behind Whisuki - Meet Jimmy and Fiesta
Benjamin Franklin once said: "A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats." In Jimmy and Fiesta's case, the irresistible "fish" is a good bottle of Japanese whisky!
There are tons of friendly faces in the Japanese whisky scene. Jimmy and Fiesta are another two of them. This dramming couple are the good-looking people behind Whisuki – a friendly resource about distilleries, bars and whisky events in Japan with a strong following of enthusiasts like myself.
Fiesta and Ichiro Akuto-san of Chichibu Distillery fame.
Despite their hectic schedule, the couple brings their vibrant and bubbly personalities to whisky appreciation, keeping us in tune with the Japanese whisky scene. We have learnt so much from their inside-scoops on the latest and greatest in Nippon whisky!
Today, we're sitting down with Whisuki who would be giving us some helpful advice on how to juggle an ambitious work life with your passion for whisky, how to start a whisky collection as a beginner, how to set up the best wedding proposal for a Chichibu-lover, and the best whisky bars to visit in Japan.
Join us for this lively conversation with Jimmy and Fiesta!
88B: Hi Jimmy and Fiesta! Before we dive into your relationship with whisky, could you tell us a little about yourselves? How did a Japanese-New Zealander and Indonesian lawyer meet, and how did you find yourselves living in Japan?
Jimmy: I was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan until the age of 10. I then moved to a small town (now a small city) called Taupo in New Zealand with my family. We lived on a farm with a bunch of animals (sheep, cows, horses, chickens, you name it) and close to a massive lake, so it was quite a big culture shock for me at the beginning, but I got used to it pretty quickly. I’ve been back in Japan since 2013, living in the city again. So, I guess you can say that I’m a city-boy with a country-boy personality. I first met Fiesta about 3 and a half years ago in Tokyo.
Fiesta: Unlike Jimmy, I’m a typical city-girl, born in Jakarta (the previous Capital City of Indonesia) and lived there until the age of 33. My career as a lawyer enabled me to go on many different adventures, and it eventually led me to Tokyo in 2018 where I met Jimmy a year later. I really enjoy living in Tokyo because it’s similar to Jakarta but also very different in many ways. Both cities have so many fun places to hang out, plenty of good foods (and whisky!) and different activities to experience depending on our moods. The biggest difference for me though is the traffic (Jakarta traffic is my worst enemy). Tokyo is so much more organized and easier to live in!
88B: As a bonus, could you also share with us one of your secret talents or skills that few people know about?
Jimmy: I can do a pretty good Mickey Mouse voice impression, according to Fiesta...
Fiesta: This is a very recent talent of mine, but I can make yummy whisky cookies and muffins! And kung pow chicken. Otherwise, hubby is the cook.
88B: Around 2020, you guys created Whisuki and began sharing your exciting experiences with Japanese whisky, along with very useful insights about distilleries, bars and events in Japan. Within 2 years you have very quickly built a strong following. We particularly enjoy reading your handy Guides on your favourite Japanese Distilleries and Japanese bars.
How did the both of you get into whiskies? Could you share with us one of the best memories you’ve had with whiskies?
Jimmy: As lawyers, we often go to bars and restaurants with colleagues or clients, so we knew a little bit about whisky, but we weren’t really interested in it. One day we just looked at each other and said hey, we’ve been drinking this whisky thing for some time now, why don’t we go and check out a distillery on a weekend? We learned that Suntory’s Hakushu Distillery is not too far from Tokyo, so we went and were just blown away by the beautiful surroundings, the history and all the hard work and passion that goes into making whisky. There, we met Moe, a fellow kiwi (aka. New Zealander) who recommended us to visit Aloha Whisky Bar in Ikebukuro, Tokyo if we wanted to learn more about Japanese whisky.
At the Tokyo 2022 Whisky Festival with Aloha Whisky Bar's David Tsujimoto
When we got to Aloha Whisky Bar, we only knew about Suntory and Nikka in terms of Japanese whisky. David, the bar owner, taught us that nowadays there are many other interesting Japanese whiskies produced by smaller (or “craft”) distilleries, and introduced us to Ichiro’s Malt from Chichibu Distillery and Mars Komagatake single malt from Mars Shinshu Distillery. We also learned that Chichibu is only about an hour and a half away from Ikebukuro, so that became our next distillery trip and from there, we were hooked!
Our best whisky memory is getting engaged at Chichibu Distillery, but this would not have been possible if it weren’t for our visit to Hakushu Distillery and David at Aloha Whisky, so maybe the better answer is the combination of these three events.
Fiesta at the Chichibu Distillery
88B: We, like all your avid followers, teared in heartfelt congratulations when we saw you guys get engaged at the Chichibu Distillery. That must have been such an incredible moment for you guys. Could you indulge us in telling us abit more about what was that magical moment like?
A wonderful Chichibu Distillery engagement proposal to remember
Jimmy: It was amazing because it was exactly how I imagined – in the middle of warehouse #1, surrounded by all those barrels and the beautiful sunlight shining down on us (we got lucky because it was supposed to rain that day). What made it even more special was that Ichiro Akuto-san, the distillery owner, and Yumi Yoshikawa-san, the distillery ambassador, took their precious time to witness the whole thing. David helped arrange the surprise by inviting Fiesta and I to the distillery to make it seem like it was just another distillery trip. Being a typical lawyer, Fiesta asked so many questions like… I’m excited to go but didn’t we just go there a few months ago? Why is David only inviting us? Why this why that, blah blah. I’m not a good liar so my answers were pretty lame, so Fiesta knew something was up, but it all worked out in the end! We will forever be grateful to Akuto-san and Yoshikawa-san for allowing us to do this at their Distillery and to David for making this happen!
88B: Jimmy has mentioned that in the past, Fiesta mostly preferred heavily peated whiskies while Jimmy only liked fruity whiskies, but along the way, both of you have learnt to appreciate different styles of whiskies over the years.
How have your tastes and preferences changed over the course of your journey in discovering whiskies? Are there any memorable bottles that have changed your mind towards a style of whisky you earlier avoided?
Fiesta: I think going to many bars and distilleries and tasting various kinds of whisky made us change our minds. We got used to them pretty quickly and started to understand and appreciate the differences. Jimmy even joined me to the Ardbeg tasting event at Madorigal in Ginza, which is a bar run by an Ardbegian (aka. Ardbeg lover) with all kinds of smokey, peaty whiskies, and he loved every second of it!
Nosing whiskies at Bar Ikkei
88B: Both of you have been working as lawyers, but outside work, you have been able to find time to collect whiskies, visit bars and build a great brand for yourselves in an area you are passionate about.
Two of our contributors (CharsiuCharlie and CrystalTonic) also happen to also be corporate lawyers who find it a challenge to have work-life balance. What are some advice you would give us on how to succeed in your career ambitions, and yet still find time to work on your exciting passion project?
Jimmy: We’re a bit lucky because we both love whisky and travelling, so we’re both happy to go to bars and travel around the country to visit distilleries during our time off. We also don’t have kids yet, so that makes it a lot easier.
If you’re single and busy at work, our advice would be to just have fun, don’t take it too seriously and do it at your own pace. Otherwise, it will just become another full-time job on top of your “real” full-time job and that will ruin the fun.
If you have a partner who doesn’t enjoy whisky as much as you do, then you’re screwed – haha just kidding. Our advice would be to just make sure your partner understands that whisky is something you’re passionate about and you’d like to spend some time on. Nothing wrong with having a hobby that you’re really passionate about! Just make sure your partner comes first.
88B: You guys are often very successful in your whisky bottle hunts, even when Japanese whiskies are becoming increasingly difficult to get our hands on these days.
Could you share a little about your collection? How do you guys decide if a bottle is worthy of a place on your shelf?
Which of these bottles at home is your favourite conversation piece? Could you share the story behind it?
Jimmy: Back in 2020, we tried to buy any new Japanese whisky we could get our hands on and it wasn’t too difficult because not as many people knew about them. Now, even though there are more new distilleries in Japan releasing new single malts, many more people are buying them, so they’ve become a lot harder to find.
We’d like to be able to go to bars, try the whisky and if we like it, buy it somewhere. But in reality, that’s not how things work because by that time, it’s already too late. So, what we typically do now is buy whiskies from distilleries we like and want to support, if we can get our hands on them.
Jimmy at Bar Ikkei
Fiesta: Our favorite conversation piece and most memorable bottle purchase would have to be the 30-year-old Mars Malt Le Papillon Takahide Komatsu Edition because this is by far the oldest Japanese single cask malt whisky that we own, and we were very fortunate to win the right to buy it directly from Hombo Shuzo. We started our whisky journey pretty late (in 2020), so most of our collection consists of new and young Japanese single malts.
88B: The mid-2010s saw an incredible explosion in demand for Japanese whisky around the world. As people who have been so close to the Japanese whisky scene, do you think it is still realistic to start being a Japanese whisky collector?
What tip would you give to someone who hopes to begin collecting Japanese whisky?
Jimmy: That’s a tough question because Japanese whiskies are very difficult to come by. Even in Japan, they disappear off the shelves within minutes, and most of the time you will find out about it on social media when it’s already too late. We sometimes manage to buy new Japanese whiskies at retail prices because we have a good relationship with a local store, but still, nothing is guaranteed. Unfortunately, therefore, right now the most realistic way to buy Japanese whisky is to look at the secondary market where the prices are higher. Things could change in the next few years though because there are now around 30 new whisky distilleries in Japan that have started production already and counting. Rumor is that over 100 whisky-making license applications were made in Japan in the last couple of years. “Fingers crossed” you should THEN be able to try many different Japanese whiskies and decide which ones to buy!
On the other hand, if you want to drink new and/or exclusive Japanese whisky in Japan, it’s not difficult at all because there are so many great bars here and the prices are usually very reasonable. Even now, if you hop around some bars here, you might see a bottle of Karuizawa or Hanyu and price for a half shot can be as low as ¥2,500 (about US$20).
88B: We couldn’t help but notice the many craft Japanese whiskies in your collection, the likes of Nagahama, Akkeshi, Shizuoka, Kanosuke and Sakurao.
A little peek into Jimmy and Fiesta's unique Japanese whisky collection.
Many of your favourite distilleries that you have visited and documented in your Distillery Guide are also smaller-scale craft distilleries, some of which have not yet released their first bottles. This makes both of you well-qualified to share some thoughts on the craft whisky scene in Japan!
Some of them have certainly exploded in popularity, but which ones do you find to still be underrated gems?
Which new distilleries would you recommend the readers to keep a close watch on?
Jimmy: I think by far the most underrated are Mars Shinshu and Tsunuki Distilleries from Hombo Shuzo because they make some of the best Japanese single malts in my view. It’s surprising because Hombo Shuzo is arguably very far ahead of the game as they, like Suntory, Nikka and Venture Whisky (aka. Chichibu Distillery), have been making whisky a lot longer than others.
The Mars Shinshu Distillery.
Right now, I think the distilleries to watch for are Kanosuke Distillery in Kagoshima prefecture and Akkeshi distillery in Hokkaido. Not too far behind are Shizuoka Distillery in Shizuoka prefecture, Nagahama Distillery in Shiga prefecture and Saburomaru Distillery in Toyama prefecture.
I think the distilleries on the rise are Asaka Distillery in Fukushima prefecture, Sakurao Distillery in Hiroshima prefecture and Yuza Distillery in Yamagata prefecture.
I think the most intriguing distilleries are Niigata Kameda Distillery in Niigata prefecture and Kuju Distillery in Oita prefecture. Niigata single malt is not ready yet, but they recently held a booth at Whisky Festival Tokyo 2022 and their non-peated and peated newmake were interesting. Kuju single malt is not ready yet either as they only started production in 2021, but there is so much hype behind them already because they are owned by Tsuzaki, a reputable liquor store, bottler and organizer of the famous Whisky Talk Fukuoka, which is one of the longest lasting annual whisky events in Japan.
I think the most anticipated distillery is Ontake Distillery in Kagoshima prefecture. People are expecting amazing things from them, as they are an experienced shochu-maker with a reputation for making high quality products.
Yasato Distillery in Ibaraki prefecture is another distillery that is highly anticipated. They recently announced their new whisky brand name, “Hinomaru Whisky”, and it appears from their recent announcements that they will reveal their first single malt pretty soon! They are interesting because they also make various kinds of grain whisky using wheat, rice and even soba.
88B: Over the past two years, you have visited an impressive number of distilleries and over 80 whisky bars in Japan.
Whisuki sure is no stranger to whisky bar hunting!
Could you share about how you can tell what’s a good bar for bar hoppers to venture into and what’s a tip on how they can unlock the most of their experience at the bar?
Could you also share with us what’s one of the first things you guys are always asking or saying to a new bartender you meet?
Fiesta: We usually find whisky bars by asking fellow whisky lovers and bar owners instead of researching online. It may sound strange, but bar owners in Japan are often very friendly towards other bar owners and they sometimes even suggest which bar in their neighborhood to go to next.
Jimmy: The best way to get the best experience at a bar is to start a conversation with the bar owner and ask him/her questions about his/her favorite whisky, story or theme behind his/her bar, why did he/she start his own bar, etc. You will find that every story is different, interesting and sometimes even inspiring. This way you can learn a lot about whisky too.
88B: As travel restrictions are lifted, we can imagine some of our readers would be heading over to Japan for vacation.
After being to so many whisky bars in Japan, could you recommend (a) one whisky bar for a Scotch whisky lover and (b) one for a Japanese whisky lover?
Fiesta: Shanty Shack in Yokohama for a Scotch whisky lover because Shige-san is a certified whisky expert (yes, there is such a thing in Japan), speaks pretty good English and has a nice selection of Scotch, including many interesting single casks form independent bottlers. He has a good selection of Japanese too (mostly from Chichibu Distillery). The Mash Tun in Meguro also has a great selection of Scotch and the owner, Suzuki-san, speaks very good English.
Jimmy: If you’re a Japanese whisky lover travelling from outside of Japan, then definitely Aloha Whisky Bar in Ikebukuro because David’s Japanese whisky collection is amazing, his prices are very reasonable and he (obviously) speaks English as he’s from Hawaii. There are so many other amazing bars in Tokyo with a good selection of Japanese whisky though, like Bar Kage and Bar Entrust in Ginza, Bar Oasis and J’s Bar in Ikebukuro, The Royal Scotsman in Iidabashi, Ken’s Bar in Kyobashi, Bar Zoetrope in Shinjuku, Bar Espace in Akasaka, Bar Gosse in Meguro, and plenty more outside of Tokyo.
88B: We often don’t realise that different cultures can have very different drinking habits around whisky and spirits. Many whisky lovers – us included – grew up with the impression that it is a big taboo to put ice in a glass of whisky. It was not until we saw your posts on How to Drink Whisky that we actually realised the Japanese sometimes even water their whisky down with hot water (oyuwari/お湯割) and drink it like hot tea during winter!
How would you describe the typical Japanese whisky drinking culture, and how does it differ from the whisky drinking culture of other places?
Apart from practices like oyuwari, are there other unusual Japanese whisky drinking practices that would come as a surprise to us?
Fiesta: Here, people drink whisky in a variety of ways. Nobody will look at you weird if you’re not drinking your whisky neat, unless you’re with a real “whisky-otaku” (aka. whisky geek or nerd). It’s probably more common for people here to drink highball (whisky mixed with soda water) or whisky on the rocks than neat actually. I think the attitude generally here is no problem as long as you’re enjoying it.
Jimmy: It might not be surprising to most whisky connoisseurs but many blenders in Japan, including in Yoichi Distillery, say that the twice-up (whisky diluted with water to a 1:1 ratio) is actually the best way to determine a whisky’s unique aroma and flavor profiles.
88B: Many iconic Japanese dishes – like sushi, tofu or oden – are famous for being gently-seasoned, mild and elegant. When it comes to whisky, do Japanese tastes and preferences differ from Western drinkers? If so, how is this reflected in the flavour profile or character of typical Japanese whiskies?
Jimmy: Some bar owners have told us that around 10 years ago, not many people in Japan liked drinking cask strength whiskies because they were too strong for them. Back then, most Japanese whiskies were within the 40-46% ABV range. Things have changed quite a lot since then. Now, there are a lot more people drinking whisky in Japan, including cask strengths, and many new distilleries are even bottling their first single malts at cask strength (for example, Kanosuke Distillery’s 2021 First Edition was bottled at cask strength at 58% ABV).
88B: Certain combinations of whisky and food really make great pairings. You have recommended pairing smoky Mars Komagatake with aged smoky cheese. You have also suggested pairing a Sherry cask Ben Nevis with double chocolate cookies.
If you could pair any Japanese whisky with any dish from your favourite restaurant in Japan, what would that unbeatable combo be?
Fiesta: Sushi and Hakushu neat or highball for me. Hakushu is light and refreshing, so it goes really well with fresh and light flavors of sushi.
Jimmy: Butter corn miso ramen and any bourbon-barrel aged whisky for me. I tried this a few times in Sapporo, Hokkaido and it was so good!
88B: Looking ahead, what are some of the big themes in whiskies right now that give you the most excitement?
Fiesta: I think for us, the biggest theme that gives us the most excitement is the current craft whisky boom and the significant increase in the number of whisky distilleries in Japan. Before 2016, there were probably less than 10 active whisky distilleries here. Now, there are easily over 30 distilleries and counting. It’s been so much fun visiting these distilleries, learning about them and tasting all the whiskies they’ve produced.
There are so many more whisky lovers here compared to before too. We’ve managed to make many friends and that has made bar hopping and whisky events extra fun. The future of Japanese whisky seems bright!
88B: One final question before we let you go: If a couple is travelling to Tokyo and has a weekend to spend there (or in the surrounding regions), how should they plan their itinerary?
Fiesta: If you only have one weekend in Tokyo, make sure you get some sushi, ramen and yakiniku/yakitori (Japanese-style BBQ beef/chicken), go to Shibuya and Asakusa for some sightseeing, go to Harajuku and Ginza for some shopping, and go out for some whisky bar hopping in the evening! If you need tips on where to go, just contact us!
Jimmy and Fiesta's sensible advice and insightful tidbits are incredibly helpful for both beginners and maniacs of Japanese malt. Unfortunately, listening to Fiesta's Japanese street food recommendations has made me both hungry and jealous of the fact that they live in the hub for great single malts and dining options.
I'd add that this is the second time someone has told us to check out the single malts produced by Mars Shinshu and Tsunuki Distilleries. There is definitely something in the water down in Kagoshima!
Do check out and definitely follow the friendly folks at Whisuki! You'll love their personality and learn so much from them about Japanese single malts and the best places for your favourite tipple in Japan.
WHISUKI (@whisuki) | Information
Friendly whisky lovers who provide free information about Japanese whiskies, bars & distilleries in Japan based on their in-depth findings and visits.
Reference page: https://beacons.page/whisuki
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