It's been around for almost a century, but much of the world is only now discovering Japanese whisky. For whisky fans who have spent time pondering single malt and blended Scotch whiskies, Irish whiskies and bourbons, stumbling on their first Japanese whisky may be a bit of a surprise. While sake and soju get most of the attention when it comes to East Asian spirits, whisky is no slouch, and is taken quite seriously in Japan.
"The funny joke I tell people is that Americans thought it was made out of rice five years ago," says Gardner Dunn, national brand ambassador for Suntory Whisky. "In reality, Japanese whisky is a Scotch-style whisky, made using malted barley, water and yeast. The profile is subtle, refined and complex."
Japanese whiskies in general tend to have a lighter, sweeter profile than their Scottish counterparts, the closest being the floral Highland or milder Speyside whiskies. But in some ways they more closely resemble Irish whiskies to the American palate: approachable, smooth and eminently drinkable.
"Japanese whiskies tend to appeal to the Japanese palate," says Raphael Lester, head bartender at the new Mira Sushi & Izakaya Bar in Manhattan. "I would describe them as silky, refined and elegant vs., say, a bourbon, which tends to have more of a bite."
Suntory master distiller Mike Miyamoto is even more blunt: "The Japanese are not good with high alcohol. But something like our Hibiki blended whisky is so well-blended and so smooth, the Japanese love drinking it."
This spring, the Suntory company celebrated its 90th birthday (though it wasn't called Suntory initially). In the early part of the 20th century, shopkeeper and sweet wine producer Torii Shinjiro became enamored of single malt Scotch whiskies as a means of expanding his business. After Masataka Taketsuru visited Scotland for another company and learned the process inside and out, he was recruited by Shinjiro to help build the Yamazaki Distillery, which began producing a malt whisky in 1923. The company now makes a number of whiskies, but only a handful of labels and expressions are available in the U.S: Yamazaki 12- and 18-year, Hibiki 12-year (a blended whisky) and most recently Hakashu 12-year, a lightly peated whisky.
They're not the only game in town anymore here in the West. Nikka Whisky, another longtime Japanese distillery (founded by the aforementioned Taketsuru when his contract with Shinjiro ended), introduced two of its labels last fall, via Anchor Distilling Company. Taketsuru Pure Malt 12-year ($70) is a blend of malt whiskies from two distilleries, one high in the mountains of Sendai. It is fruity and sweet, with a brilliant silkiness to it. Yoichi Single Malt 15-year ($130) is produced at the Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido. It's reminiscent of Highland-style whiskies, with peat, spice, coffee and smoke notes, yet it retains the brightness and smoothness characteristic of Japanese whiskies as a category. Neither are cheap, but they give whisky geeks something to brag about, and they're particularly delicious (I tried them first at WhiskyFest New York last November and, again, as samples at home).
"More and more, knowledge of whisky is power," says Dunn, "and the whisky nerds stand out. In my estimation, Japanese whisky leads the focus of coolness for whisky connoisseurs who love telling people, 'You have to try this!'"
But what makes a Japanese whisky truly distinct from any other fermented, distilled and aged grain spirit around the world? Production rules roughly follow those of Scotch whisky, with single malts produced from malted barley at a single distillery (different batches can be blended). Blended whisky may include scores of malted and unmalted whiskies of various ages, from various distilleries. "Pure Malts" are blends of single malt whisky from more than one distillery.