Victory toast: Kikuchi introduces teammates to fine Japanese whisky

April 15th, 2024

TORONTO -- How do you take your post-game whisky: neat or on the rocks?

After last week’s win in New York, Yusei Kikuchi reached deep into his locker for a bottle of Yamazaki, one of Japan’s finest whiskies. It’s part of a new tradition in Toronto's clubhouse. When Kikuchi starts and the Blue Jays win, the Yamazaki comes out.

Small pours, of course. This is the good stuff.

“Those bottles are pretty expensive, but [Daniel Vogelbach] joined in the other day, and whoever wants to join in, feel free,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “The bottle is a little expensive, but I don’t mind buying, and hopefully, a few more wins come our way so I can keep buying.”

The Yamazaki distillery was Japan’s first commercial distillery when it opened in 1923, still young in whisky years. The Yamazaki region links Osaka and Kyoto, about 600 miles from where Kikuchi was born in Morioka, and the distillery rests in a special place where the Katsura, Uji and Kizu rivers converge. Good whisky starts with good water.

When Shinjiro Torii founded the distillery in 1923, whisky production was new to Japan. The locals saw loads of barley shoveled into the distillery each day, but they saw nothing coming out the other end. Unfamiliar with the years of cask aging required for whisky, a rumor began of a monster named "Usuke," which lived beneath the distillery and ate barley.

In the century since, Japanese whisky has slowly grown, and recently exploded internationally, with Yamazaki’s whiskies among the most sought-after. Kikuchi isn’t a big whisky drinker, knowing only that his bottle is from 2022, when he signed with the Blue Jays, but he’s been eager to share this with his teammates.

“I hadn’t had that before and it was really, really good,” Vogelbach said. “It’s always cool when someone has something like that, especially coming from Japan when they’re excited to show you and let you try. It was cool.”

Japanese whisky will remind you more of Scotch and the country’s distilleries have followed many of the Scottish traditions. The whiskies have a smokier, peatier flavor compared to an American or Irish whiskey. Vogelbach is more of a bourbon man, which is where you’ll find more caramel and vanilla notes, and he collects it in the offseason as he travels.

A (small) pour from Kikuchi’s bottle was new to Vogelbach, but since growing close to Kikuchi stretching back to their time with the Mariners together in 2019-20, he’s watched his friend’s big league success with pride.

“I don’t think people take into account that when you come over to a whole new country, you leave your family,” Vogelbach said. “You’re trying to learn a whole new culture, a new language. On top of that, you’re trying to pitch at the highest level to the best of your ability. To see him flourish and get through those barriers, to feel like he’s comfortable here, it shows that when someone is comfortable, they perform to the abilities they’re capable of.”

The more Kikuchi’s teammates have gotten to know him, the more they love him. His 2022 debut with the Blue Jays was challenging on so many levels, but his success since has drawn out so much more of his personality, his confidence, that sparkle.

Kikuchi doesn’t need much room at home for a bar -- he’s happy to restock the Yamazaki as needed -- but he’s got his own sprawling collection. Books are Kikuchi’s thing. If the Blue Jays want to re-sign him this offseason, their best pitch should be that he won’t need to move his library.

“Too heavy,” Kikuchi says in English with a laugh, recoiling at the thought of moving them all again.

Kikuchi reads over 200 books a year. Most of his reading comes in the offseason, but life in the big leagues is filled with airplanes and slow mornings, so there’s time. Kikuchi reads mostly psychology, biography and baseball books. Most best-selling books in English are quickly translated to Japanese, so Kikuchi burns his way through those, too. He recently enjoyed ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ by American psychologist Angela Duckworth.

Kikuchi has always had a book in his hand, thousands of them stretching back to when he was a boy in Japan.

“I was one of four siblings in the family and we didn’t use money very freely,” Kikuchi explained, “but the one thing that we were allowed to buy were books between the four of us.”

Now, Kikuchi’s walls are covered in books. An expensive hobby in its own right, but cheaper than the Yamazaki, even if Kikuchi doesn’t mind buying the next round.