Why You Should Be Drinking Japanese Whiskey Now
When Shinjiro Torii began building Japan's first whiskey distillery, Yamazaki, in 1923, he probably could never have predicted his bottles would one day sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But we're living in a Japanese whisky (that's right—they spell it without the "e," just like Scotland, England, and Canada) heyday, which really began when noted spirits writer Jim Murray's named the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as the best whiskey in the world in his 2015 Whisky Bible.
The Whisky Library at the Yamazaki Distillery
"That made everybody pick up and take notice," says Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council, the national trade association that tracks sales and trends in the industry. The uptick was dramatic: U.S. sales revenue of Japanese whisky jumped from about $1.5 million in 2011 to $24.7 million in 2017. The increased attention, Coleman says, has resulted in significantly more demand, more limited supply, and higher retail prices (akin to Pappy Van Winkle).
It's a crowd-pleasing spirit, perhaps because it's one that would meet even Goldilocks's standards: It's less sweet than bourbon but not as powerful and peaty as some Scotches, striking an appealing balance. Here's how it enjoy it.
"I want to create a perfect whisky that reflects the nature of Japan and the spirit of Japanese craftsmanship," Torii once said. He hired Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist who had studied distilling in Scotland, to help establish his first distillery in Yamazaki (a Kyoto suburb known for its water quality) in 1923.
Pot stills at the Hakushu Distillery
In 1934, Taketsuru left to form his own whisky company, Dainipponkaju, which later changed its name to Nikka. He built the Yoichi Distillery on the island of Hokkaido. Suntory's second president, Keizo Saji, built Hakushu Distillery at the base of Mount Kaikoma in the Southern Japan Alps in 1974.
Fast forward a few decades: While Murray's Whisky Bible mention in 2015 may have thrust Japanese whisky into the international spotlight, Suntory itself was already something of a household name following an unforgettable scene in 2003's Lost in Translation.
How to Drink It
In Japan, whisky is traditionally consumed in highballs, which combine the spirit with club soda for a refreshing and session-worthy mix. The recipe is straightforward:
- Fill a highball glass to the brim with ice.
- Pour in 2 ounces of whisky and stir well to chill.
- Top with 6 to 8 ounces of soda and stir once more.
The highball is one of the most popular ways to consume Japanese whisky.
"Our whisky can be enjoyed in any style—with water or without, with ice or without," Suntory Global Brand Ambassador Mike Miyamoto told me at the Yamazaki Distillery. He believes that the brand's whiskies are best described simply as "subtle, refined, yet complex."
Because of that complexity—especially in single malts like Hakashu's 12-year-oldwhisky—higher-end bottles are best poured neat or over ice.
Distilleries to Visit in Japan
The Japanese whisky industry was born at the Yamazaki Distillery, so it's only appropriate for it to be the first step on any Japanese whisky tour. It's located in the middle of a bamboo forest, roughly a ten-minute walk from the JR Yamazaki Station, which is a 15-minute train ride from Kyoto. Guided tours (which include tastings and start at 1,000 yen, or about $9, per person) can be reserved in advance here, but guests are free to drop in to visit the Yamazaki Whisky Museum and gift shop without a reservation (and it's worth it—the tasting counter offers some 70 varieties of rare whiskies at seriously reduced prices.) Open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last entry at 4:30 p.m.); 5-2-1 Yamazaki, Shimamoto-cho, Mishima-gun, Osaka; +81 75 962 1423. suntory.com
It takes about two hours by train from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to reach Hakushu, the other Suntory distillery open for tours. Located in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, in a park that's also home to a bird sanctuary, Hakushu known for using peat to produce whiskies, adding a smokiness that makes them resemble exceptional Islay single malts like Bowmore and Ardbeg. Like Yamazaki, both guided and self-guided tours are offered, and reservations can be made here. Open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.); 2913-1 Torihara, Hakushu-cho, Hokuto-shi, Yamanashi Prefecture; +81 551 35 2211; suntory.com
Taketsuru established the first of Nikka's two distilleries in 1934, and Yoichi is known today for producing rich whiskies using a traditional method of direct heating distillation—the pot stills are heated by direct coal fire. Yoichi is located on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four principal islands and sits at about the same latitude as Toronto. Self-guided tours and guided tours in Japanese are offered, and the distillery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 7-6 Kurokawa-cho, Yoichi-cho, Yoichi-gun, Hokkaido; +81 135 23 3131, nikka.com
The Best Bottles to Try
Hakushu 12 Year
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky
Yamazaki 12-Year-Old Whisky
Nikka Whisky From The Barrel
Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.