When the Jim Murray Whiskey Bible named the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the World Whiskey of the Year in 2015, you could confidently say Japanese whiskey had arrived — and it only took 92 years. Japanese whiskey’s humble, honest beginnings started with a drive for greatness and found itself at the apex of quality.
Built from the Scottish blueprint, interpreted through the Japanese aesthetic, perhaps best describes the style of Japanese whiskey. Despite the cultural cleft between Scots and Japanese, the transition whiskey took from the glacial glens, peaty bogs and mountainous wilds of Scotland to the land of the rising sun was an organic one that started with two men’s love of whiskey. Those men were Shinjiro Torii, who founded the House of Suntory, and Masataka Taketsuru, its master distiller.
A pharmaceutical wholesaler who experienced success with a port-wine import business, Torii set upon building the first distillery in Yamazaki in 1923 and enlisted Taketsuru, a University of Glascow chemistry alum and apprentice distiller, to help him. Taketsuru had brought the Scotch method to Japan upon his return from abroad. Then, he established the archetype for almost all Japanese whiskies to follow. If you need a refresher in the Scotch method, the University of Edinburgh provides a helpful primer.
The Japanese introduced balance and harmony to whiskey. If you’re new to Japanese whiskey, you’ll taste the difference right away. If you’re a connoisseur, you can attest to the wide range of nuances — from smoky and fat on the palate to light and tight in the finish — that define its character.
In operation since 1924, the House of Suntory exemplifies the harmonious relationship between nature and the Japanese. Suntory has three distilleries — Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita — that produce four exceptional styles:
- Yamazaki, their flagship single malt series, the No. 1 whiskey in Japan.
- Hakushu, a single malt series known for its gentle smokiness and herbaceous bouquet.
- Hibiki, their signature blended line.
- Toki, a blend of whiskies from the Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries that expresses Suntory’s quest for innovation.
In 1934, Masataka Taketsuru split from House of Suntory to explore his vision and founded Nikka Whisky and the Yoichi Distillery. Yoichi Distillery launched its first line, Nikka Whisky, in 1940, and now produces four styles: single malt, blended malt, blended and grain.
Other distilleries producing in the Japanese style include Fuji Gotemba, Miyagikyo, Chichibu, Shinshu, and Akashi (White Oak).
Whether you consider yourself a neophyte or aficionado of Japanese whiskey, you have an abundance of bottles to choose from, but just a handful of must-haves. Here are three:
If you’re new to the Japanese whiskey scene, go with the Yoichi Single Malt by Nikka Whisky. Widely considered a value, Yoichi Single Malt epitomizes the original Nikka style of smoky and fruity at an agreeable price point of around $100. Its peaty aroma and rounded smokiness fill the palate, while undertones of tart citrus fruits married with hints of nuts and spice underscore its flavor profile.
You might know Suntory’s Hibiki 17 Years Old as the whiskey Bill Murray’s character (Bob Harris) advertises in Sophia Coppola’s hit “Lost in Translation.” Much more than product placement, Hibiki 17 Years Old is one of the best whiskies available, winning 17 awards worldwide.
The Hibiki’s bouquet teems with oak, honey and resin, underscored by a mildly smoky, chocolatey character. It caresses the palate with lush sweetness and notes of mixed fruit peel, custard and sultanas, and a sherried finish. You can pick up Hibiki 17 Years Old for around $160.
Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt 25 Years Old has a place in every connoisseur’s cellar. Marked by a boisterous nose packed with raisin and port wine redolent of a Spanish Brandy de Jerez Reserva, the Yamazaki follows with a round palate full of dried fruit and a touch of dark coffee.
Considered a masterpiece removed in style from other Yamazaki series offerings, the Single Malt 25 Years Old has a dark color not unlike a weak black coffee and a finish that lingers long after the swallow. A rare find, the Yamazaki Single Malt 25 sells for around $1,700.
Enjoy Japanese whiskey just as you would Scotch — neat or with a few drops of water to help it aromatize and open up a bit more flavor. If you choose ice, use one large sphere or whiskey stones to chill the whiskey without diluting it.
Common Japanese whiskey, on the other hand, can afford a little dilution. Take the mizuwari, for example.
Mizuwari simply means “mixed with water” and generally refers to a method of drinking shōchū, a type of Japanese distilled spirit, but also applies to whiskey. Like with any whiskey cocktail, don’t use top shelf. Even though you might find a bar or izakaya more than happy to sell you a mizuwari made with a fine 12-year-old single malt, that doesn’t make it okay. It’s sacrilege.
Mizuwari reflects Japanese attention to ritual and patience. In fact, making a mizuwari comprises half the enjoyment. If you don’t have an ice sphere, no worries. You can use regular ice cubes.
1. Add one ice sphere (or fill the glass halfway with regular ice) to a tumbler, followed by 1 ½ ounces of Japanese whiskey. Stir the whiskey clockwise around the sphere 13 ½ times.
2. Add a second ice sphere or top off the glass with ice. Slowly add 3 ounces of cold, filtered water.
3. Then, tell your guests a Japanese proverb. Just kidding, but it makes the process more dramatic.
4. Stir the whiskey mizuwari 3 ½ times clockwise and serve.