We sat down with one of our go-to spirits experts, Mark Hibbard, bar manager for Black Cow of Portland, to learn more about the Japanese Whisky trend. With several new options available in Maine, it's worth learning more about this unique whisky and giving it a try!
MS: Unlike Scotland or Ireland, Japan doesn’t have centuries of whisk(e)y distilling tradition to help define it. How recent of an invention is Japanese Whisky, and how has its relative newness shaped it?
MH: Japanese Whisky got its start about 100 years ago when Japanese businessman Shinjiro Torii teamed up with Masataka Taketsuru to start a whisky distillery that would later become Suntory. Taketsuru would eventually open the Nikka distillery in 1934, establishing himself as the father of Japanese Whisky. It’s new kid status in the whiskey world probably shaped its acceptance more than its style. Whiskey drinkers are notoriously biased towards styles they prefer. Bourbon drinkers drink bourbon, scotch drinkers drink scotch and so on. It wouldn’t be until the early 2000s that the rest of the world would really take note.
MS: Does Japanese Whisky have any signature characteristics in flavor or process that distinguishes them in style, in the way that new charred oak barrels are to bourbon, and peated malts are to scotch?
MH: As far as procedural laws go, Japanese Whisky is pretty lax. It has to be made from cereal grain - so no rice - and it has to be aged in a barrel. That being said, a lot of the techniques used are rooted in the standards of scotch distillation.
MS: On the whisk(e)y spectrum, which styles does Japanese Whisky most closely resemble, and which styles does it most diverge from?
MH: Scotch, for sure, both styles rely heavily on malted barley for their respective mash bills. Also, Taketsuru apprenticed for a couple years in Scotland before opening his distilleries and used the knowledge gained during that time as the blueprint for Japanese Whisky. The style that it differs the most from? Bourbon - it really comes down to the mash bill; bourbon is primarily made from corn, maybe a little wheat or rye, but that corn is what gives bourbon its body and sweeter qualities.
MS: In the past 20 years, Japanese Whisky has gone from an obscure domestic product, to a decorated and highly regarded worldwide luxury product. How has it gained so much notoriety so quickly?
MH: Aside from the fact that they had been making superb whisky for a couple generations, there were at least three major factors that led to Japanese Whisky finally getting the recognition it deserves. In the early 2000s two different Japanese Whiskys won prestigious awards, in 2001 Whiskey Magazine gave Nikka 10-year Yoichi Single Malt their “Best of the Best” award, and in 2003 Suntory’s Yamazaki 12-year won the Gold Award at the International Spirits Challenge. Awards go a long way in the spirit world, especially when you have to overcome the consumer’s predisposed notions on what makes something good or special. The other, less obvious bump came from Bill Murray. Specifically, Murray’s character in the movie Lost In Translation. In the film Murray’s character is in Japan to film a commercial for Suntory Whisky, and he repeats the line, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” It may seem odd, but it’s true; people still quote that line to me when they see the bottle of Suntory Toki on the back bar. Never underestimate the Bill Murray bump.
MS: Most cocktails had either been invented or are based on recipes that were invented long before the invention of Japanese Whisky. With no real template work from, how have bartenders approached using what is essentially a new product in their recipes?
MH: There actually is a classic already attached to Japanese Whisky: the Japanese Highball. In the 50s and 60s, Taketsuru’s business partner Shinjiro Torii opened a slew of whisky bars that focused on the highball. It’s a simple drink really, 1 part whisky to 3 parts mixer, usually soda, but if you view it through the lense of what we know about Japanese craftsmanship, it becomes something more. Think of it this way, rice and fish are pretty much the most basic ingredients that one can find, but if you have a sushi master preparing them, it can transcend the initial parts.
For my Japanese Highball, I start with the biggest piece of ice I can get my hands on and throw it a tall glass, next I pour in 2 ounces of Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky, add 2 dashes of Regan’s Orange Bitters, a chunk of lemon (don’t squeeze it) and top it with sparkling water. It’s easy going and surprisingly refreshing.
MS: For anyone unfamiliar with the style and eager to try it, what products/brands would you recommend they try?
MH: For anyone starting out, I recommend Suntory Toki, it’s probably the easiest on the wallet, and is extremely subtle, but if you’d like to jump right in the Nikka Coffey Grain is in my opinion one of the best whiskys available.
TOKI SUNTORY JAPANESE WHISKY750ML 86 Proof Japanese Whiskey
NIKKA COFFEY GRAIN WHISKY750ML 90 Proof Japanese Whiskey