At the 2010 World Whisky Awards, whiskies from Japan won prizes in two of the top three categories for Scottish-style whisky. No one was surprised; Japanese whiskies have been snapping up awards at international competitions for the last decade.
“Japanese whisky is seen as equal to, or in some cases, better than Scottish whisky,” says Mark Gillespie, host and producer of the podcast WhiskyCast.com. Until recently, the Japanese had been keeping their top-quality whisky to themselves. But once it started to trickle out, whisky fans quickly took notice. The bad news is that only a few imports, all single malts from major producer Suntory, are currently available in the US: Yamazaki 12-year-old, Yamazaki 18-year-old, and Hibiki 12-year-old, plus a miniscule amount of Yamazaki 1984. A far wider selection can be found in Europe, particularly France.
The good news: This is about to change. Japan’s two largest whisky makers, Suntory Ltd. and Nikka Whisky Distilling Co, plan to expand their presence abroad. Suntory exported 106,000 cases last year, up 17 percent from 2008, and hopes to increase sales by more than 20 percent this year. Nikka saw an 11 percent increase in European sales and has announced plans to bring their whisky to the U.S. by the end of the year.
What makes Japanese whisky special?
“Japanese whisky is probably best seen as a whisky-making region of Scotland, which has found itself several thousand miles from the homeland,” explains Chris Bunting, editor of Nonjatta, an extensive English-language Web site devoted to Japanese whisky. As in Scotch whisky, the “e” is dropped from the spelling. Japanese producers adhere rigorously to traditional distilling methods; some even continue to use time-tested techniques that the Scots themselves have abandoned.
“Perhaps the most important distinction comes from Japanese drinking culture. Japanese people tend to eat while they’re drinking and Japanese whisky is often designed to accompany food,” Bunting says.
Gillespie, who has served as a judge at the World Whisky Awards and Malt Maniacs Awards, notes that Japanese whisky is marked by its balance, smoothness and delicate nature. His recommendations include Yamazaki 12-year-old, Nikka Taketsuru 21-year-old, Nikka From the Barrel, and Yamazaki 1993 Bourbon Cask.
Bunting favors young, peppery Suntory Hakushu, peaty non-aged Nikka Yoichi, and mellow Nikka Miyagikou 12-year-old. Right now, he’s excited about an award-winning whisky called Ichiro’s Malt, made by a tiny distillery an hour outside of Tokyo. It’s already on sale in Europe but, for the time being, whisky lovers in North America will just have to wait.
Japanese Whisky Around the World
The Curio Parlor Cocktail Club in Paris carries 30 varieties of Nikka whisky and holds monthly tasting events.
If you can’t make it to Paris, you can try Suntory’s Yamazaki 12-year-old and Hibiki 12-year-old single malts at a number of bars around the country, such as the Nihon Whisky Lounge in San Francisco.
Char No. 4 in Brooklyn offers a surprising variety of Japanese whiskies, including six single malts from Nikka and two from Karuizawa, from the owner’s private collection.
Blend Your Own Whisky in Tokyo
Try out your whisky blending skills at the Nikka Blender’s Bar in Tokyo’s stylish Minami-Aoyama district. The bar serves a unique tasting flight for Y3000 ($34) that includes five single malt varieties and one grain alcohol, which can be mixed and matched in different combinations. The menu lists recipes for seven of Nikka’s standard blends, but feel free to experiment.
The Nikka Blender’s Bar stocks the widest range of Nikka whiskies in the world, including some rare single casks and special anniversary blends, as well as the award-winning Taketsuru 21 Year Pure Malt.