When east meets west

Japanese spirits can sit next to Scots counterparts

Suntory Ambassador James Bowker
Suntory ambassador James has worked in bars for more than a decade.

JAMES Bowker was appointed UK ambassador for the House of Suntory range of spirits earlier this year.

Having worked in bars for more than a decade – including in Japan – James has now been tasked with building the profile of Suntory’s Japanese spirits across the UK.
Here, he gives his thoughts on Japanese spirits and what Scottish bartenders could learn from their Japanese counterparts.

Q: Scotland is the home of Scotch whisky – does this mean bar and pub operators are more or less open to stocking Japanese spirits?

A: Scotland is a beautiful country, and there’s no denying that its whisky is beautiful too. But whilst Scotch will undoubtedly continue to perform well within the Scottish on-trade, in my experience operators always stock spirits that they believe will give customers a truly special experience – and that includes Japanese whisky.

Q: You spent time bartending in Japan. What strikes you as the biggest differences between the Japanese cocktail scene and the one in the UK?

A: In Japan the culture revolves around Kaizen. You learn skills from a master of their craft, but don’t actually make a drink in the bar until you’ve mastered them too. It’s a slower and humbling learning process, which leads to perfect classics, but there’s less focus on creativity and modernism. It’s also far more focused on the beauty of the process, whereas here in the UK it would be hard to get away with crafting something truly perfect when people are in a rush to get served as quickly as possible.

Q: What are the most important skills or knowledge you picked up there?

A: First and foremost, humility. In Japan, respect is revered far more highly than simply impressing for a moment. Respect lasts, whereas our idea of ‘impressive’ evolves as soon as something more exciting comes along. This changes everything, because respect is earned only after years of working hard and proving your commitment to true hospitality and the craft of making special moments for people.

Q: What can Scottish licensees do to promote Japanese spirits in their premises?

A: Talk about them! Educate yourselves so you understand better what makes them different and special. Avoid the idea of a competition between Scottish and Japanese spirits; allow them to sit side by side and remind your guests that by appreciating both we can understand and enjoy them for their differences all the better.