Kanpai!: Savoring the complex, worldly taste of Japanese whisky | AspenTimes.com

Kanpai!: Savoring the complex, worldly taste of Japanese whisky

Andy Stonehouse
Special to The Aspen Times
A selection of Japanese whiskey, including, from left, Hibiki Suntory Whisky Japanese Harmony, The Yamazaki Single Malt Japanese Whisky and The Hakushu Single Malt Japanese Whisky.
Dominique Taylor

If, like many people, the entire extent of your knowledge about the fascinating world of Japanese whisky is Bill Murray’s role in 2003’s “Lost in Translation” (where he film’s endless, jet-lagged commercial takes of “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time”) … well, that’s not really a bad place to start.

The last two decades have indeed seen a revolution in the world of spirits, and while hundreds and hundreds of new craft-grade American bourbon and upstart Scotch whiskies have appeared, it’s been a slow build for Japanese whisky.

But that’s changed recently as a new generation of aficionados have started to discover the intricacies and diversity of Japan’s take on whisky, which, like its Highlands role model, drops the ‘e’ and can be as complex and heavily peated as your favorite Islay single malt.

The big issue is that Japanese whiskies’ surge in popularity have also made them costly and hard to come by, especially if you’re looking for favorites like the Yamazaki 12-year-old, or even the acclaimed Hibiki Japanese Harmony. A flurry of attention to Japanese whisky means the heavy hitters, many of which can exceed $500, tend to end up at restaurants, and not on liquor store shelves.

You are not, however, entirely out of luck, as some retailers still carry a good selection of more affordable options — Suntory’s Toki, for instance, is a great $40 introduction to the genre, and items such as Nikka Coffey Grain (named for the inventor of the Scotch whisky still, not the flavor) are easily obtainable.

The subtleties of Japanese whisky make it a spirit that’s distinct from other, better-known international varieties. Though a base Hatozaki small batch or one of the Suntory brands has a bourbon-style taste, the whiskys’ aging process doesn’t pick up as many wood notes as bourbon or Scotch. It tends to taste crisper and cleaner, with a few baking notes, like vanilla and spices.

As you might guess, the history of Japanese whisky and Scotland’s distilling heritage are intertwined — with its own, more recent bourbon connection, too. Japan is still a relative upstart in the whisky world, with the first official Japanese distillery founded in 1924. Shinjiro Torii established what would eventually become the larger Suntory brand in Yamazaki, a Kyoto neighborhood known for its long tea culture.

Torii’s aspiration was to create an authentically Japanese variation of Scotland’s long-standing liquor of choice; he teamed with Masataka Taketsuru, who had spent time studying the craft in Scotland, to help create Suntory’s first products. Taketsuru left in 1934 to establish what is now Nikka distilling, another of Japan’s long-standing whisky-makers.

Besides some stray bottles of Suntory in airport lounges and retailer’s shelves, Americans by and large ignored Japanese whisky, though things changed in 2001 when a Nikka 10-year-old Yoichi single-malt was dubbed the international whiskey of the world by Whiskey Magazine.

Meanwhile, Suntory grew globally and in 2014 purchased Kentucky’s own Jim Beam Brands, part of a company that also owns Scotland’s Laphroaig and Mexico’s Sauza.

Japanese whisky’s literally blended roots and multicultural connections have created a bit of an issue in more recent years, so the industry has attempted to clarify just what is, and is not, a 100 percent Japanese product.

Unlike the rules in the U.K. and elsewhere, Japanese whisky labeling has been somewhat indistinct, even in terms of age of the spirits, and products have actually been blends of non-Japanese products. By 2024, the Japan Spirits and Liqueurs Marketing Association has established new standards that specify Japanese whisky needs to be fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in Japan, with malted grain and Japanese water.

Now, Japanese distilleries are specifically marketing so-called world whiskies, such as Ichiro’s Malt and Grain varieties, which retail for about $110. Other brands, such as the Mars Maltage “Cosmo,” employ Scottish base product in old bourbon barrels to create their own unique variations.

How to drink Japanese whisky

Provided you’ve been able to get your hands on a bottle, the traditions of Japanese whisky consumption are perhaps a little more like Japan’s other ubiquitous spirits, sake and shochu, a distilled, higher-alcohol made of rice, barley or even root vegetables. That is, don’t do anything too fancy: Japanese whisky is also a social drink, designed to be enjoyed with friends. Given Japan’s sticky summers and cold winters, its most popular and authentic presentation is the classic highball. An ample serving of even the simplest Japanese whisky, combined with ice and soda water in the simmering summer, or hot water during a chilly winter evening, will help accentuate the unique flavors.

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