Meticulously re-created, whisky has found a second, sweet life in Japan.
April 17, 2015
Japanese whisky is having a major moment. Long dismissed as a Scotch knockoff, it saw its two major brands — Suntory (which Bill Murray famously hawked in Lost in Translation) and Nikka — march into international whisky competitions in the last few years and depart with a slew of best-in-show ribbons. (In 2012, Japanese whiskies won both best single-malt and blended-malt categories at the World Whiskies Awards.)
To be fair, at its inception it was a Scotch knockoff — the industry began with Masataka Taketsuru travelling to Scotland in 1918 to study whisky making and returning to Japan with his knowledge and a Scottish wife to boot. He went about setting up the famed Yamazaki distillery on the outskirts of Kyoto for Suntory in 1924 before leaving the company to set up Nikka in 1934. Those distilleries have since been joined by 11 others, and the spirits they produce channel the essence of Scotland’s famed malts (right down to spelling whisky without an “e”). The stills are similar, ditto ingredients, and Nikka’s Yoichi distillery is even built on a desolate section of Hokkaido to capture the climate of the Highlands.
The connection continues in the glass. The vast majority of Japanese whisky is a blend of malt and grain (think Johnny Walker) for domestic consumption, where more often than not it’s consumed in a highball with soda and those cool ice balls they love over there. But the cream of the crop is a different story: handcrafted, with a fastidious approach to quality, from the best springwater to the amazing packaging that finishes it. This is the stuff that leaves bartenders salivating. As a general rule it emphasizes smoothness above all. It’s a tad sweeter than its Hibernian counterpart (though not nearly as sweet as bourbon), great for sipping, and perfect for blending into pricey cocktails.
Nikka From the Barrel ($60)
A blend of malt and grain whiskies bottled at cask strength (51.4%), this works well with a splash of water or even — God forbid — an ice cube to unlock its slightly sweet richness and oaky vanilla notes
Nikka Pure Malt Black ($70)
A blended malt whisky (there’s no grain whisky here) that’s forceful, peaty, and strong for a Japanese whisky. The very fragrant, smoky nose would appeal to fans of Islay whiskies
Yamazaki 12-year-old ($80)
Suntory products are tough to find in B.C., but it’s worth seeking out this bottle, the most famous of all Japanese single malts. It’s very soft, very smooth — like a sweeter version of 12-year-old Macallan
The Luxury Japanese Cocktail
From Robyn Gray, Pidgin
1/4 cup (60 ml) Nikka From the Barrel
1 bar spoon (7 ml) crème de mûre
1 bar spoon (7 ml) maple syrup
5 dashes (4.5 ml) absinthe
swath of orange peel to garnish
Stir with cubed ice until chilled. Strain into coupe glass.