Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The Takeout offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.
The lowdown: Japanese whisky has a simple definition: It’s whisky from Japan. It doesn’t have the same legal requirements as bourbon or even Scotch. If any portion of the whisky in a bottle comes is distilled, bottled, or sold by a distillery in Japan, it’s Japanese whisky.
And to say Japanese whisky just burst onto the scene is no understatement. As recently as just five or six years ago, only the most well-traveled whisky aficionados were familiar with labels like Yamazaki and Hibiki. Yamazaki Single Malt, the first Japanese whisky to arrive in America, only began hitting shelves in 2001, according to the The Whisky Bible (a menu that’s also largely a reference book) compiled by Jersey City, New Jersey’s Ani Ramen House. But Japanese whisky surged ahead in America in 2014, when Jim Murray’s influential Whisky Bible guide named Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 its whisky of the year and touched off a wave of interest in whiskies from Japan.
“When we opened in 2005, Japanese whisky was unheard of. I pulled a Japanese whisky bottle and showed it to people and they laughed at me, like ‘What is this?’” says Khaled Dajani, owners and whisky buyer for San Francisco’s Nihon Whisky Lounge. “Japanese whisky really came to fame only in the past 10 years, though they’ve been producing whisky for over 100 years.”
Dajani shares a statistic to drive home his point: Beam Suntory, one of the two largest companies producing Japanese whisky, told him in 2006 the company sold 400 cases of it in the U.S., of which Nihon itself accounted for 60. Today, he says, the company sells about 30,000-40,000 cases of Japanese whisky in America.
For all its global popularity today, the Japanese whisky industry can trace its origins mostly to a single person: Masataka Taketsuru. Following hundreds of years of isolationist policy, Japan began to open itself to the world in the late 19th century. Making up for lost time, the country sent citizens abroad to learn about products in other parts of the world—how to weave rugs in the countries of the former Persian empire, and how to distill whisky in Scotland. Taketsuru traveled to Scotland where he studied organic chemistry at the University Of Glasgow and worked at several of the country’s best Scotch whisky distilleries. When he returned to Japan in 1918 (with a Scottish wife, Rita) he was hired by Shinjiro Torii, founder of the company that would become Suntory. Taketsuru worked with Torii for years, but ultimately, Taketsuru’s focus on a more peaty Scotch style of whisky wasn’t working for Torii.
“The whisky he was making was very much like Scotch: pretty smoky, intense, pretty maritime,” says Pedro Shanahan, the “spirit guide” for California-based 213 Hospitality. “That didn’t match up with what the Japanese palate wanted or was used to… In Japanese culture, you can’t really just be okay, you’re either a home-run hitter or a failure. And his wasn’t a home run. So they didn’t renew his contract, so he started Nikka.”
Those two producers—Nikka and Suntory, which acquired Beam Inc., makers of Jim Beam bourbon, in 2014 for $16 billion—today represent 80-90 percent of Japanese whisky production.
The taste: Because of its broad definition, Japanese whisky doesn’t have just one single flavor. It has historical links to Scotch whisky, and some bottles can be as peaty, earthy, and brooding as those single malts. Still others are like a highland Scotch, more restrained and subdued.
What attracts many drinkers to Japanese distilleries, though, is their mastery in the art of blending. Distillers in other whisky-producing countries generally work with one shape of still—pot, columns, hybrids—and then purchase or trade their distillate with other whisky-makers to acquire a variety of flavors for blending. But in Japan, Shanahan tells me, the attitude is more self-reliant. Distilleries typically have multiple styles of stills as well as a multitude of barrels and casks—puncheons, hogsheads, port pipes, sherry barrels, red wine barrels, used bourbon barrels—so they’re able to create richly layered blends entirely from their own distillate.
Especially when it comes to Suntory’s whiskies, some of the most popular in the world, drinkers prize their nuance, their delicacy, their harmony. “[Suntory has] a uniquely Japanese flavor profile: floral notes, light verdant green notes,” Shanahan tells me. “The Japanese really value nature and it’s reflected in the whisky making process itself, that harmony between aspects.”
Blending has the benefit of making some Japanese whiskies approachable to even newcomers, but it has a secondary benefit as well: It makes Japanese whisky relatively food-friendly.
“Japanese whisky tends to be lighter, much mellower in style than that of other whisky and it has to do with the Japanese desire to drink whisky with food,” Dajani says. “Some of the older vintages, say Yamazaki 25, are very rich. But overall, they’re looked at as friendly to the palate, easier to drink, a whisky you can drink with food.”
Possible gateway: Highballs. The Japanese whisky industry pushed these club-soda-and-whisky cocktails during a lag in spirits sales in the early 2000s, convincing drinkers they were a low-alcohol, classier alternative to beer. Refreshing and highly carbonated, these cocktails clock in at an alcohol content similar to a strong beer. Now, premixed and canned versions exist, but the best ones are still made by bartenders with great attention to detail.
I’ve had tasty Japanese highballs at ramen and izakaya restaurants stateside, but Shanahan tells me they’re an entirely more elaborate affair in Japan. At the best bars in Tokyo, bartenders hand-cut ice shards, then allow them to melt slightly so their surfaces are slick and don’t allow soda bubbles to cling to them. The bartender then slowly adds soda into the Collins glass of whisky, careful to pour the soda along the side of the glass so it doesn’t disturb the ice shard. The drink is then garnished with a precisely cut ribbon of citrus, sprig of rosemary, or piece of fruit.
Next steps: Like any other whisky, Japanese whisky is at its fullest expression when served neat or with just a splash of water or ice. As for which bottles to look for, experts caution that because global demand is so high for these whiskies, it can be difficult to chase down a certain one. (“Southern California could drink all the Japanese whisky that Japan could produce, easy,” Shanahan says.)
That said, experts recommend Suntory’s flagship Yamazaki 12- and 18-years as a solid introduction to the category, as well as Nikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt and From The Barrel lines, which show off that distillery’s blending prowess. The Takeout’s resident fancy whiskey shopgirl, Allison Shoemaker, gives two thumbs up to Suntory’s Hibiki Harmony and Nikka’s Coffey Grain. But the most important experience is tasting, tasting, tasting.
“When you go to the liquor store and see the prices on this Japanese whisky that you’ve never heard of before, and it’s twice as expensive as a killer bourbon that you know is good, it’s like ‘hmm,’” Shanahan says. “You have to go try stuff before you go buy a whole bottle and shell out $80 and get a few sips in and are bummed.”
Talk like an expert: “I enjoyed the Hibiki 21-year, but right now I’m really interested in some of the Japanese rice whiskies like Ohishi and Kikori. They’re a fascinating convergence of two of Japan’s best-known spirits: sake and whisky.”