It’s natural to think of certain regions of the world when one thinks of whiskey. But the British Isles better watch their backs. If you have been to a whiskey bar any time recently, you have probably noticed that your favorite bartenders have been pushing Japanese whiskey. Wait– Japanese whiskey?
Known for their traditional rice spirit, sake, as well as their less-well-known favorite, shochu, Japan has long enjoyed alcohol.
Whiskey has been in Japan since the thirties, by way of Scotland. Shinjiro Torii, founder of the Suntory (which now owns Jim Beam) set out to create the wines and liquors of the west. At the time, Japan was importing and enjoy fines wines and whiskey from all over the world, but Torii wanted to bring that industry home. Creating a Japanese whiskey became his passion, and he hired Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist and master sake distiller (from a long line of sake-distillers) to help him. Taketsuru had enrolled in the University of Glasgow in Scotland for his organic chemistry degree, and while there, he apprenticed at the Longmorn Distillery.
Taketsuru eventually went on to found the Nikka Whiskey Distillery, which also still exists to this day.
Japanese foods have complex, layered levels of flavor. And whiskey is the same way. And without the hurdle of being limited by tradition, Japanese distillers have more freedom to explore bold new flavors.
A lot of Japanese whiskeys are blended, but because of Japanese business practices, most companies won’t blend their whiskeys with other brands. Therefore, the majority of Japanese blended whiskeys are in-house blends, using only the flavors from one company. Because of this, most distilleries have a much larger product list to draw from your typical whiskey distillery. More flavors = more flavor combinations.
Our Favorite Sips
We’ve had the chance to sip on a few Japanese whiskeys recently. These are the brands that really made us wow.
“Tastes like Scotch but isn’t,” is the gist of every review we found for the Yamazaki Whisky, which is Suntory’s flagship single malt. We couldn’t agree more. The 12-year is our favorite, but if you want to be extra fancy, the 18-year has won 17 different awards and is always a crowdpleaser.
The 18-year from Hakushu (another Suntory brand) has the sweet, fruity notes that help differentiate Japanese whiskies from other contenders. We caught mango most strongly in this one, but there’s also the hint of a smokey and even minty flavor, too.
We love the Yochi distillery, which is owned by Nikka. Why? It was built at a similar elevation as the Scottish highlands (about 4,400 feet for those playing along at home) with the hope that that cool, high-level air flow would make these whiskeys more Scottish. Yochi’s 10-year is to thank for bringing Japanese whiskey to the world. It won the Best of the Best award in Whiskey Magazine in 2001, making the world more curious about what the land of the rising sun had to offer. But Yochi’s 15-year Single Malt was our favorite. The taste reminded us of Christmas, with wintery spices and even a slight, nutty flavor. Good for a cool night of camping or a holiday gift.