Japanese whiskey has grown from a little-known niche category reserved for die-hard whiskey fans to one of the most sought-after types of spirits of all kinds. However, serious misconceptions persist, and for those who haven't dabbled in Japanese whiskey, it can seem intimidating to get started. Don't worry, just follow these five rules and you'll be good to go.
1. Don't worry about what you can't get
Yes, Japanese whiskey is in the midst of a massive supply shortage. And yes, the age ratings have been removed and many of the previous favorites are no longer found or affordable. But new products have been released to replace those that are no longer with us, and the category as a whole is enjoying increasing diversity, even from the big ones.SuntoryYNick, as well as the growing presence of smaller brands such as Chichibu and White Oak.
It is also important to recognize why there is a supply shortage and that it simply takes time to fix it. The problem actually dates back three decades, to the early 1980s. "In 1984, taxes on whiskey were raised," says Mike Miyamoto, Suntory's global ambassador. Japanese whiskey began to collapse, and even today, sales are nowhere near what they used to be. After the tax increase, shochu became more popular in the country, along with wine, beer, and other spirits. Sales didn't bottom out until 2008, and suddenly Japanese whiskey became the hottest novelty for whiskey drinkers around the world.
To many, it seemed that Japanese whiskey was new on the scene. "But we are newcomers with more than 90 years of experience," says Miyamoto. Awards and international recognition quickly accumulated. Meanwhile, national interest has also increased, thanks in part to a fictional Japanese television drama calledthe crowd, based on the life of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka.
After decades of decline, Japanese whiskey was suddenly in demand everywhere. And there was no way to be fully prepared. "We can't launch enough right now because we didn't do enough 10 years ago," says Miyamoto. "Too easy."
More whiskey is on the way, but growth in the category both domestically and internationally after a prolonged period of stagnation has depleted whiskey stocks. So relax, there are plenty of Japanese whiskeys to savor and more to patiently age and wait their turn for years to come.
2. There is more than one type of Japanese whiskey
Japanese whiskey tends to blend with a single, homogeneous flavor profile, but that's not the case. "There's no such thing as Japanese whiskey, just like there's no such thing as bourbon or scotch," says Nikka's Naoki Tomoyoshi. “There are so many different Scotch whiskeys out there. The same goes for Japanese whiskey. Each company has its own style of house and each product is very different from the next.”
For example, each of the five Nikka whiskeys currently available in the US is different from one another. "All five products fit the style of Nikka's house, but at the same time they are very different," says Tomoyoshi. “There is not a single Nikka product that shows you the flavors of Nikka; There is great diversity just within Nikka. Therefore, there must be more variety within the overall Japanese category."
HayNikka Kaffeekorn, a predominantly corn whiskey distilled in a continuous Coffey Still, and there isMaltas Nikka Coffey, a 100 percent malted barley whiskey that is a single malt by definition of ingredient, but a grain whiskey by production methodology, as it is not pot distilled. Nikka also has single malts from its two distilleries, Yoichi and Miyagikyo, as well asMalta pura de Taketsuru, a blend of their malts.
The same variety can be seen in the Suntory portfolio. "We need so many different flavors," says Miyamoto. Each of Suntory's two single malt distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu, is capable of producing dozens of different single malts that are then blended together. The result is a richer profile influenced by sherry fromYamazakisingle malts; the green fruits and the light smoke ofHakushusingle malts; the creamy profile ofSit down, a grain whiskey; and the floral and delicate notes of the mixturehibikiLine that also uses Mizunara Oak as a defining characteristic of flavor.
3. Japanese whiskey goes very well with food
Pairing spirits with food is a challenge, but Japanese whiskey actually pairs very well with Japanese cuisine, especially in the hands of an expert. Miyamoto, for example, has hosted mating dinners for over a decade and has developed a true master hand.
For him, the key is to unite food and drink by finding common ground. "I'm trying to find this similar component," says Miyamoto. That's why he chooses a whiskey like the Yamazaki on the Rocks 12 Year Old to pair with sushi and sashimi, as the whiskey's bold complexity pairs well with strongly fermented, fishy, and salty flavors.
Meanwhile, the earthy flavors of the tempura pair perfectly with the "mountain smoke" of Hakushu. She even paired a hot hibiki tea cocktail with miso soup. "Only Hibiki can pull off this trick," says Miyamoto, crediting its full, mixed flavor profile. That's not to say that Japanese whiskey should be enjoyed with food, just that it can be, and when it is, it doesn't have to be in highball form.
4. Drink your Japanese whiskey the way you want
There seems to be a misconception that Japanese whiskey can only be consumed in two ways: neat or as a highball. While either is an acceptable choice, there's no reason to avoid Japanese whiskey on the rocks or in a proper cocktail.
"It's true that in Japan the most common way to consume whiskey by volume is in highballs, but that doesn't mean our whiskeys in Japan are for highballs," says Tomoyoshi. "I think it is the form that is seen the most, giving the impression that it is the only form in which it is consumed in Japan."
Tomoyoshi describes a whole list of ways to use things. "We believe that pure indulgence is just a way to enjoy whiskey in general, not just Japanese whiskeys," he says. "There are Japanese consumers who drink straight, on the rocks, double up (equal parts whiskey and water), mizuwari (similar to a still highball ratio, highballs and, of course, cocktails."
Craft cocktails are not taboo either. Just check out two of Tokyo's best cocktail institutions,Bar BenFiddichYGeneral Yamamoto, where Japanese whiskey is regularly showcased in creative ways. At Yamamoto, it can be a hot Yamazaki cocktail with naoshichi citrus fruits and Japanese sour plum. At Bar BenFiddich, it could be Nikka Coffey Grain with crème de cacao, Lillet aperitif and house-made floral coffee water, or a new take on HakushuSalsa de whiskywith fresh sage.
5. Stop calling him Scotsman Japanese
"Scottish Japanese" - did you just shudder? There is something wrong with this sentence. For one thing, Scotch whiskey has to be made in Scotland. Secondly, while whiskey production in Japan has been heavily influenced by whiskey production in Scotland, it is a beast unto itself.
"It's important to help people understand the true culture of Japanese whiskey," says Miyamoto. Just because single malt whiskeys and copper stills exist doesn't mean it's Scottish, and just because the techniques have been imported and learned from Scotland doesn't mean they stay the same. Rather, Japanese whiskey production has long been carefully adapted and refined to suit Japanese tastes, preferences, and culture.
So go out and enjoy some Japanese whiskey. Don't worry about age ratings disappearing when later years replacements become availableHibiki Japanese HarmonyYSuntory Tokito Nikka Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt. Infuse your favorite Japanese whiskey into a cocktail, wash it down with some food, enjoy the full range of styles to enjoy, and get excited for what's to come. Just please don't call him Scotch Japanese when you do it.