Ten years ago, Japanese whisky distillers didn’t anticipate the explosive demand that is taking place today for their sublime whiskies. Aged spirits such as Suntory’s Yamazaki 18-year-old single malt and Nikka’s Yoichi single malt 15 are difficult—if not downright impossible—to find anymore. "We just didn’t anticipate this kind of growth a decade ago," says Naoki Tomoyoshi of Nikka Whiskies. "Back in 2006, few people were buying, or even talking about Japanese whiskeys." That lack of foresight means that stocks are low and the hunt for Japanese whisky is on.
Say you’ve landed one—how do you best savor the find? After all, many of these bottles are some of the finest and rarest in the world. Some of you—like me—would prefer to immediately share a bottle with friends rather than store it.
Know this: Whisky is transient, ephemeral, translucent, and sometimes flawed, a concept the Japanese callwabi-sabi, which roughly translates to the beauty of imperfection and impermanence. Life unfolds, evolves, chips, and cracks like old pottery, but you love it anyway. No one whisky pleases every palate—not evenPappy Van Winkle. But a fine whisky will offer you an opportunity to experience a few languorous Zen-like moments with friends regardless.
Dip into thenowand open your bottle tonight. Let it elevate your everyday cocktail hour into a sparkly and unforgettable evening experience. As the Japanese proverb goes, "The day you decide to do it is your lucky day."
Here are nine Japanese whisky appreciation tips.
1. Hunt for subtle aromas and flavors.
Japanese whiskies are as varied as their Scotch cousins, but they do tend toward subtler nuances in flavor. Look for the pulled-back, lovely whiff of peat smoke in a Yoichi single malt, a quieter version of the peated whiskies from Scotland’s Islay, for example. In fact, the founder of Yoichi’s parent company, Nikka, studied whisky-making in Scotland. Masataka Taketsuru returned years later with a Scottish wife and a tome of notes. After a stint helping to create Suntory’s first distillery site in Osaka—Yamazaki whiskies are still made there—Taketsuru chose the green and wistful island of Hokkaido, whose temperate climate and thick sea-air reminded him of Scotland for his own first distillery in 1934. The distant snow covered mountains and cherry-blossoms blooming around the distillery are distinctly Japanese though.
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2. Appreciate what you've got in your hand today because it will change tomorrow.
Japanese producers often tweak their whisky-making by carefully analyzing the effectiveness of distillation, fermentation, and maturation regularly. If efficiencies or a flavor-change for the better can be found anywhere along the whisky-making value-chain, a Japanese whisky-maker will adapt. This philosophy of continuous improvement, summed up by the word kaisen, means that the whisky you fell in love with today may actually evolve into something ideally more exquisite tomorrow. Yamazaki’s head distiller said to me, "If the whisky you are tasting in your hand tastes the same in 10 years, we have failed."
3. Japanese stills are a thing of beauty.
Stills gently heat fermented grains to pull both aromas and ethanol out of the liquid, and then condense them again. There are two kinds of stills commonly used in Japan: Coffey (or continuous) stills and pot stills. Each type produces different characteristics.
4. Understand the importance of wood on flavor.
Fresh distillate coming off of either a Coffey still or a pot still will be charged into various casks. The alcohol mingles and interacts with the wood over time. Look for vanillas, spice, soft caramels, dark fruits, and other luscious flavors that are pulled from the wood and into the spirit. It sleeps in fresh American charred oak, refurbished old sherry barrels, used bourbon barrels, and a unique Japanese wood called mizunarain warehouses all over the Japanese landscape.
5. Don't dismiss blended Japanese whisky.
Do you believe that only single malts are worthy of a spot on your liquor shelf? Think again. Japanese master blenders spend decades perfecting the art of whisky blending, experimenting with an infinite combination of aged whiskies aged in at least a dozen types of casks and distilled with different grains. Like a drop of rose oil into a fine perfume, or a pinch of salt into an omelet, the smallest amount of whisky aged in a sherry-influenced cask or distilled with peated barley could dramatically alter the character of a whisky batch.
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6. Pay attention to ice.
Bartender Ikkei Honma, in Sapporo on Hokkaido, spends hours carving ice blocks into squares, spheres, and oblong rectangles. High-quality ice is so revered and popular that even his local 7-Eleven keeps blocks of it on hand for him to sculpt. Try freezing a large sphere with distilled water in your freezer. Large cubes dilute slowly into your whisky over time; the idea here is that ice becomes an ever-evolving part of your drink—even disappearing into it—so use the ingredient wisely.
Silicone Square Ice Cube Mold, $14.95
7. Fall in love with the simplicity of a highball.
On first glance, a traditional Japanese highball is nothing more than soda water and whisky on ice. But the meticulousness with which many bartenders make them elevates the drink to a form of high art, built on years of experimentation and skill. Takanori Yamamoto, chief bartender at The Place in Tokyo, spent 17 years perfecting his version of a highball. He measures one-part Old Parr whisky, three parts water, and a final "drop" of Cragganmore single malt scotch, which he says gives it depth.
8. Honor the drink with the appropriate glassware and garnish.
Some of the most elegant shapes and materials for highballs, old fashioneds, and other cocktail glasses are made in Japan. Bars throughout the country display them with the bottles on their shelves, and drinks are served in crystal so fine they feel as if they might break under the delicate pressure of your fingers. In true wabi-sabi sentiment, nothing needs to match; rather, it should evoke a feeling.
9. Go ahead and experiment.
Don’t be too precious about drinking rules. Want to add ice? Do it. Water? Fine. Japanese bartenders love experimentation, just as the whisky-makers themselves do. Ikkei went so far as to sink his bottles of whisky into the Sea of Japan for 90 days, allowing the waves to gently agitate the whisky (seen above in photo #2). He tastes his experimentation regularly and claims that the whisky tastes richer and more complex after a few months among the waves.