For decades, whiskey lovers around the world pretty much had four countries to choose from: Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the U.S. But Japan has been making delicious whisky for nearly as long as those others, and in the last few years, Japanese whisky’s popularity has absolutely exploded.
When the 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible—among the most influential whiskey guides (and written, it should be noted, by an Englishman)—named a Japanese whisky the best in the world for the first time, Scotch geeks were shocked, calling it a sea change. The fact is that Japan has been making some incredible whiskies for decades—cult favorites that are becoming harder and harder to find—and it’s time to acknowledge that Land of the Rising Sun is, on the whole, creating the best whiskies in the world right now. With its combination of deep respect for tradition and incredibly skilled blenders crafting unfathomably complex bottlings, Japan’s distilling industry is making exactly the kind of booze in-the-know drinkers are looking for.
The numbers don’t lie: In just two years (from 2013 to 2015), U.S. sales of Japanese whisky have quintupled. Connoisseur-favorite bottlings are nearly impossible to spot in stores and are selling on the secondary market for thousands of dollars. Needless to say, Japanese whisky is so hot right now.
Johnnie Mundell calls the spirit’s rise in popularity a “cosmic convergence”. A native of Scotland, Mundell had served as West Coast brand ambassador for several different Scotch whiskies before jumping over to Suntory, the largest Japanese whisky maker, last year. He actually traces the beginnings of the current trend way back to 2003, when Bill Murray and Lost in Translation introduced most Americans to the existence of Japanese whisky—and Suntory specifically. Japanese whisky started to catch on among hardcore whiskey geeks and bartenders as much as a decade ago, building gradually until the explosion of the last couple years.
Mundell says what makes Japanese whisky unique is “cultural terroir.” “It’s not just the ingredients and the places they come from but also the mindset of the people making the whisky,” he says.
In Japan, that means looking to the past for inspiration. “Respect for tradition is deeply embedded in Japanese culture, and for that reason the whisky there is made very traditionally,” says Robin Robinson. The former national brand ambassador for boutique Scotch brand Compass Box, Robinson today is a consultant to a variety of craft spirits brands and has taught classes on Japanese whisky at New York’s Astor Center for the last few years. Many Japanese distilleries use old-fashioned equipment like 150-year-old still designs, wooden fermentation vats and using direct flame instead of steam for distillation. “In reality, Japanese whisky is probably more traditional than Scotch right now,” Robinson says.
The history of whisky in Japan actually stretches back nearly a century, and ironically, the same man is largely responsible for the birth of the country’s two largest brands. In 1918, the scion of a sake-brewing family named Masataka Taketsuru traveled to Scotland to learn whisky-making. Taketsuru apprenticed at three different Scotch distilleries, studied at the University of Glasgow and married a Scotswoman named Rita, who would return to Japan with him in 1920 (she became a beloved figure in her adopted country and is known today as the mother of Japanese whisky). Taketsuru was hired by liquor importer Shinjiro Torii to open Japan’s first distillery. That distillery was Yamazaki, and Torii’s company later changed its name to Suntory. Ten years later, Taketsuru left Yamazaki to start his own company—Nikka—and opened a distillery in Yoichi.
Many drinkers think of Japanese whiskey as similar to Scotch, but that’s only part of the story. Though there are 100-percent-barley Japanese single malts, the nation’s distillers also make more bourbon- or Irish whiskey-like spirits from a corn-heavy mix of grains. That’s actually one of the country’s whisky strengths: There are only around a dozen active distilleries in Japan, but each one makes a variety of whisky styles and ages them in a variety of barrels. “Single malt Scotch is generally considered better than blended Scotch, but that’s reversed in Japan: Blends are more highly sought-after than single malts,” Mundell says. They take the art of blending very seriously in Japan—one master blender is known for eating the exact same lunch every day so as not to throw off his palate.
“Japanese whisky compared to Scotch is something like ballet compared to modern dance,” says Andrew Friedman. The owner of Liberty, Friedman has assembled one of Seattle’s best whiskey selections with some 400 bottles, anywhere between 8 and 20 of which come from Japan, depending on availability. Friedman originally opened Liberty a decade ago with a focus on American whiskey, but a flight-attendant friend who was in Japan several times a month starting bringing back whiskey for him about five years ago, and he was hooked.
“I discovered Yoichi 15, and it was a revelation.” Friedman says. “Japanese whiskey has all the flavors you’d expect from Scotch but also adds other elements.” One aspect that’s truly unique to Japan is mizunara oak, a cousin of the American and European species most often used to make whisky barrels. Mizunara oak is exceedingly expensive, so it only makes up a small portion of the barrels used in Japan, but it adds subtle sandalwood and incense notes that can really only be found in the nation’s whisky.
Friedman is also not shy about using Japanese whisky in cocktails. He recommends mixing it with stone fruit, citrus peels (but not juice, which can overpower the whisky), lemongrass and amari.
Despite its unique characteristics, Japanese whisky is also fairly subtle. “Generally speaking, Japanese whisky has the volume turned down,” says Stephanie Moreno, spirits director and editor for booze-discovery app Distiller. “That subtlety and elegance means you discover different flavors as you taste it.” Moreno previously worked for six year as the spirits buyer at New York’s Astor Wines & Spirits, which put her in the right place at the right time to get deep into Japanese whisky.
Moreno says social media and the Internet have made an important contribution to Japanese whisky’s widespread popularity, as whiskey lovers can find peers and share favorites around the world. “The consumer has changed,” she says. “People used to stick to one brand their entire lives, but we don’t do that as much anymore. We want to try everything.”
Because Japanese whisky has gotten so expensive, Moreno suggests you taste before you buy a whole bottle: Order an ounce or two at your local whiskey bar, or snag tickets to one of the many whiskey-tasting events held around the country.
With that in mind, here are a few Japanese bottles to try. (One thing to note: I have excluded whiskies made from rice from this piece. Though they can be quite tasty—Kikori was one of my favorite new bottles of last year—they are a very different beast. In fact, rice-based spirits can’t even be labeled as whisky in Japan.)
In Japan, the humble highball is raised to an art form, and Mundell raves about this Suntory single malt mixed into one. Even if you can’t make it to the distillery to have one at the incredible bar there, it’s still delicious with club soda. Friedman also calls it “one of the best whiskies I’ve ever had.”
Masataka Taketsuru chose to open his company Nikka’s first distillery in the town of Yoichi, on Japan’s northernmost island, because he thought it had ideal terroir. And the distillery’s 15-year-old is still considered an archetypal Japanese whisky. Subtle fruit and nuts yield to a long, long finish with hints of spice and smoke. (Nikka is phasing out age-stated whiskies like this one, though, so it’s tough—and only getting tougher—to find. Taketsuru Pure Malt is a good alternative: It’s a mix of whisky made at both of Nikka’s distilleries, Yoichi and Miyagikyo)
NIKKA COFFEY GRAIN AND COFFEY MALT
Another pair of whiskies from Nikka, these two bottlings are distilled (the first from a mix of grains, the second from only barley) on an early model of the modern column still (which was invented by Aeneas Coffey; these whiskies have nothing to do with coffee.) Robinson calls the malt version “gorgeously delicate and yet rich,” and Moreno says it’s ideal for bourbon drinkers who want to get into the category. (And on the upside, both bottles are among the easiest Japanese whiskies to find.)
Keep an eye out for any of the hard-to-find whiskies from this upstart distillery, founded in 2007 by Ichiro Akuto, whose family ran the now-closed Hanyu Distillery. Though the whiskies are comparatively young, they’re beloved by in-the-know connoisseurs. Though it’s a competitor with Mundell’s Suntory brands, he says “I have the utmost respect for anything made at that distillery.”
You’ll find this Suntory bottling exceedingly difficult to track down, but Moreno says it’s well worth it: “Time stopped when I tasted this.” The depth of different fruits you’ll find in the spirit as you sip it is just astonishing. (For a more realistic alternative, you can also look for Hibiki Japanese Harmony, a non-age-statement bottling that Robinson says highlights Japan’s masters of whisky blending.)
One of Robinson’s favorite Japanese bottles, Iwai comes from the Mars Shinshu distillery, which reopened in 2012 after being shuttered for a decade. Located just south of Nagano in the Japanese Alps, it’s the country’s highest-elevation distillery. Iwai has a corn-heavy mashbill, giving it bourbon-like vanilla and oak notes, along with complex fruit and spice notes from aging in a wide variety of barrel types.
AND NOW, A WORD FROM SOME BARTENDERS