Whisky is a big part of David Croll’s life. Born in Leicester, England, Croll has always been a keen whisky drinker (since university days, when he roomed next door to a student from Edinburgh, who, as well as sharing his initials and birthdate, was one of the earliest members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society).
He first came to Japan in 1985 on a three-month graduate training program with Nomura Securities. In 1995, when Isle of Arran Distillery started up, the son of the founder contacted Croll and his wife and asked if they’d like to do some PR work in Japan. In 1998, they established Arran Japan to act as sole importer and distributor.
Today, the business, now known as Whisk-e Ltd, imports and distributes a range of independent distilleries such as Isle of Arran, Springbank, BenRiach, Bladnoch, Kilchoman and Glendronach, as well as merchant bottler Duncan Taylor & Co. Whisk-e also organizes the popular Whisky Magazine Live event each year, publishes the Japanese version of UK-based Whisky Magazine, and operates the Japanese franchise of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Croll at his office in Tokyo’s Minato Ward to hear more.
How was 2012 for you?
The big thing for us last year was expanding our product range. Now we have three product categories. Whisky is the core, then European craft beers which was the fastest growing part of our business last year, and our third pillar which is craft spirits, cocktail ingredients such as gins, vodkas, etc and also the Fever Tree premium mixer range. What the whole product range shares is that sense of craftsmanship- small companies producing high quality products with passion.
How do you distribute the products you import?
We don’t have our own shop, so we work very closely with department stores like Isetan, Takashimaya, Tobu and Mitsukoshi. For example, we have a staff member at Isetan Shinjuku every day in their spirits department doing tastings with customers. We are also in many specialist liquor stores. Up to now, most of our products have been niche, single-cask whisky offerings, but on the cocktail side, we have a product called Fever Tree, a range of mixers which includes a premium tonic water. We are just starting to work with some of the chain stores for that.
In our online shop, we sell products that we are not selling to our retail customers, mostly limited releases. We are also looking at opportunities in terms of having a bar to showcase the products we import.
It must be a very competitive business.
Our sales team deal with bars, hotels, wholesalers, liquor stores and department stores and the competition for bar or shelf space is tough. Most of our products are niche products and not as well known in Japan as some of the bigger brands. Craft products come from small independent producers. So you have to have a story.
How do you get the story out there?
We do a lot of events, some of which are events for the industry like Whisky Live which has now evolved into the Tokyo International Bar Show. We also do some events just for our own products. Last December we did a beer event for the first time, Hop Revolution. We use social media quite a bit and we do a little bit of trade advertising.
How knowledgeable are Japanese consumers about whisky?
Very. There is a real interest. When some of our distillery managers come from Scotland for seminars, they get questions they have never been asked before. We get a lot of very knowledgeable women at our events; that always surprises the overseas visitors.
What trends are we seeing in the whisky industry?
Single malts continue to grow quite well. There has been a steady but ongoing shift away from blends in more developed markets. Globally, whisky has been going through a really good time. If you look at the Scotch Whisky Association export figures, they are setting new records every year, in new markets. Places like China, South America and Asia are seeing increasing interest. In Japan, the market is finally moving ahead after a long period of slump and the biggest reason for that is the highball. It has made whisky more acceptable again whereas for a long time it was more niche. Japan is a very good market for connoisseurs and for limited edition products, which is basically our end of the market. But it is not a fantastic market for standard products. There is not yet a huge array of standard whiskies in supermarkets for example.
What do you think of Japanese whisky?
I think it is incredibly well made. It is very pure, whereas Scotch often tends to have more character. I love Japanese whisky. They have consistently won many awards overseas over the past decade or so.
Tell us about Whisky Live.
When we held the first one in Japan in 2000, it attracted 600 visitors. Now we get about 8,000 over a weekend. It’s evolved from purely Whisky Live into the Tokyo International Bar Show. The next one is April 20-21 at Belle Salle Shibuya Garden. The theme this year is Legends and Rising Stars. The legends are Takao Mori (owner bartender, Bar Mori, Ginza) and Peter Dorelli (formerly bar manager, The American Bar, Savoy Hotel, London). The rising stars are Fumiyasu Mimitsuka (chief bartender, Bar Little Smith, Ginza) and Jim Meehan (owner bartender, Bar Please Don’t Tell New York).
How is Whisky Magazine doing?
It went online solely last year last June. It’s doing quite well. Page views and visitors are increasing each month. We are looking at developing a Japanese distilleries reference site in Japanese and English.
What is a typical day for you?
There is no typical day for me. I work with the teams on different projects and concentrate on the buying side, looking for new products and maintaining relationships with existing suppliers and customers.
Do you travel much?
I’d like to get back to Europe more often to look for new products but can’t devote as much time to this as I’d like to. Last year we were very keen to expand our craft beer portfolio, but just couldn’t get across to visit the breweries we’d identified. In the end, we invited them out to Japan and that led to the Hop Revolution event.
Are you a big whisky drinker?
We do a lot of in-house tastings, both to sample new limited-edition products before purchasing and also to enable our sales team to explain products to customers in their own words, rather than reading off a sales sheet. When I go out, I always look at what’s in the bar to see if our products are there or not. There is such a fantastic range of products in bars in Japan.
Recently, as well as whiskies, I’ve enjoyed trying some of the classic cocktails such as a martini or negroni, but made using some of the more niche, craft ingredients we’ve managed to find- there is no end to the number of variations a good bartender can produce.
Have you ever seen any whisky drinking habits that horrified you?
Once, at a bar in a major hotel, I saw an elderly Japanese gentleman order a bottle of incredibly expensive whisky — maybe it cost about 1 million yen —and a little bottle of Coke as a mixer.