No whisky drinkers needs to be shocked by the ever-growing recognition of Japanese whisky. Bartenders have been raving about it for years and it’s stocked on the most unique evening jars, nevertheless it’s nonetheless a whisky for the purists: made, distilled, and mashed within the custom of Scottish whisky for one of the best a part of a century.
That’s as a result of Japanese chemist Masataka Taketsuru studied whisky manufacturing in Scotland in 1918 and took his Scots-learnt expertise again to drinks firm Suntory to arrange their Yamazaki distillery. He later based Japan’s different big-name whisky producer, Nikka.
While homegrown whisky was fashionable in Japan throughout the latter a part of the 20th century – the highball, whisky and soda, was launched to youthful and feminine drinkers in Japan and has been fashionable ever since – it was solely exported within the early 2000s. It quickly gained awards and grew in recognition all over the world. And its growth in recognition caught conventional distilleries without warning.
“Some of the whiskies from Suntory and Nikka won so many awards that they ran out,” says Dom Roskrow, editor of Whisky Quarterly and creator of Whisky Japan. “It’s a simple case that they laid down these whiskies but they didn’t lay down enough to meet increased demands. It started to become slightly exotic and mysterious.”
Yamazaki – the signature whisky from Suntory aged 18 years or over – is now nearly unfindable. Suntory’s Hakushu 12-year-old – the whisky drank by and made globally well-known by Bill Murray in Lost in Translation – has ceased gross sales altogether. Nikka was compelled to cease promoting aged whiskies as a result of they had been operating out of the stuff and would have gone bankrupt. Instead, the corporate put two non-age assertion whiskies into the market. And whiskies from the now-defunct Karuizawa distillery can fetch over £25,000 per bottle on the secondary market.
“Karuizawas have become as collectable as any whisky in the world,” says Roskrow. “There are bars which offer 15 or 20 Karuizawas – and you’re talking about £200 or £300 for just a shot. Japanese whisky is now incredibly rare and collectable. And no one’s sure how much Japanese whisky has been drunk and how much is sitting in the cupboards of collectors across the world.”
It would possibly sound like a pattern, however as Brian Ashcraft, creator of Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit, says, “This isn’t empty hype… Japan makes excellent whisky.”
While the manufacturing course of is similar as conventional Scottish whisky, Japanese whisky does have distinctive notes.
“They use mizunara, which is Japanese oak,” Roskrow explains. “Every oak matures the whisky flavour a special method. Mizunara provides an incense-like flavour to a few of their whiskies. It’s fairly a fragile factor, nevertheless it’s a particular word that units it aside.
“As we all know from their vehicles, the Japanese are superb at taking issues aside, discovering out how they work, and placing them again collectively in a superior method. They had been doing issues very boldly. When they made peated whiskies they had been closely peated, after they used sherry casks, they had been closely sherried. The kinds are very daring.
“But we discovered that beneath all that, there’s a classy and delicate facet to their whiskies. Their distillers are simply turning into extraordinarily good at making whisky and taking it right into a barely totally different course to scotch.”
“There are other variations,” says creator Brian Ashcraft. “Nikka was the primary to run malt by a coffey nonetheless and is now the one distillery on the earth that fires its pot stills by coal, which supplies the Yoichi single malts a novel character. But simply by the truth that Japanese persons are making whisky, the outcome can be totally different.
“There is a late 19th-century expression ‘wakon yosai’, which implies ‘Japanese spirit, Western technology.’ This signifies that if Japanese folks use Western tech, studying or concepts to do one thing, the outcome can be totally different.”
Japanese distilleries are additionally amongst probably the most superior on the earth. While conventional scotch whisky producers have one signature bottle, Japanese distilleries are capable of produce an unimaginable variety of kinds, which is born from one of many nice Japanese whisky traditions: a fiercely guarded secrecy between rival firms Suntory and Nikka.
“In Scotland there are 120 distilleries and they all swap their malts to use as a base for their blends,” says Roskrow. “In Japan that doesn’t occur as a result of Suntory and Nikka would by no means work collectively, and there are many distilleries in Japan.
“One factor they’ll do is invent a distillery that has a number of totally different stills, a number of totally different yeasts and time flows, totally different cuts, and totally different cask sorts – wine, port, sherry casks, and so forth. This offers them the power to make as much as 150 kinds of spirit at one distillery.”
Now with Japan about to host the Rugby World Cup later this 12 months and the Olympics in 2020, they’re rumoured to be gearing manufacturing in direction of having loads of top of the range whisky obtainable in time for these occasions.
Here are a few of the greatest bottles at the moment obtainable to get your new whisky obsession began.
Nikka from the Barrel
“This is one of the best Japanese whisky deals available,” says Ashcraft. “Bottled at 51.4 per cent, it’s not only a good value for money, but a truly delicious whisky with terrific raspberry and burnt wood notes.”
Buy Now: £38.95
Yamazaki 12 Years Old
“This is a classic example of quality Japanese whisky,” says Roskrow. “It is as juicy as whisky gets, coveting the mouth. Imagine three different flavoured fruit smoothies topped off by alcohol. The nose of polished wood and fresh pine is a treat. There is plenty of fruit, including some citrus, and a wonderful sweet and fruity finish. You might struggle to find this and if you do, take care – quality Japanese whisky seems to be a licence to push up the price point.”
Buy Now: £230.99
Ichiro’s Double Distilleries
“Ichiro Akuto of the Chichibu Distillery is one of the pioneers among Japan’s new breed of whisky makers,” says Ashcraft. “The Double Distilleries release is fascinating because it contains malt whisky from the now shuttered Hanyu Distillery, which Akuto’s father ran, and the Chichibu Distillery. It’s a look at the past and the present, with soft aromas that evoke autumn, pine cones and dried figs.”
Buy Now: £99.95
“I’m a big fan of this distillery and was nervous about Nikka’s decision to cease production of its aged whiskies and replace them with this,” says Roskrow. “But this is a great and well-made whisky, and is something of a Yoichi ‘greatest hits’ package. Yoichi tends to be known for its peat flavours and oily texture, but some of its single cask offerings cover everything from sherried malt to hickory and clove to apple and pear. Here the whole range is hinted at, in a restrained and balanced way. Delightful.”
Buy Now: £114.73
Suntory Kakubin Yellow Label
“High balls have long been popular in Japan, but honestly, you can enjoy cheap whisky in a high ball,” says Ashcraft. “I’ve been in restaurants that have promoted Hibiki high balls, which I think is rather odd, because all that soda and ice overpower Hibiki’s nuances. For me, I love a high ball with Kakubin, which is a readily available Suntory whisky that’s cheap and sold at the supermarket. It’s a prefect summer beverage.”
Buy Now: £59.33
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
“If you’ve never had Japanese whisky and like softer, floral blends, this is a good place to start,” says Ashcraft, “Japanese Harmony is very smooth with honeyed wood aromas and a wonderfully soft mouth feel. For me, the basic Japanese Harmony release is far superior to the 12-year Hibiki blend. Cheaper, too.”
Buy Now: £153.99
“This is the first private bottling of Japanese whisky from Dekanta,” says founder Makiyo Masa. “It’s a beautiful liquid from a little-known producer in the Japanese whisky industry, with a finish that has been praised for its innovation – the whisky spent time in an ex-Port Ellen Scotch whisky cask, as an homage to the origins of Japanese whisky in Scotland. It makes this a very unique product, with fewer than 300 bottles available.”
Buy Now: £538.99