Posted on | May 29, 2014
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
Some of the most celebrated, top-scoring and highly allocated whiskies in the world today hail not from Scotland, but Japan. Which is sort of amazing, considering most American consumers didn’t know Japan even produced whisky five years ago. “When I began selling Japanese whisky in the U.S., everyone assumed it was made from rice,” recalls Mike Miyamoto, Global Ambassador for Suntory Beam, which owns three of the country’s ten distilleries.
Relative to Scotland’s 500-year-old whisky tradition, Japan’s industry is in its infancy, beginning in 1923 when Shinjiro Torri, who owned a liquor importing company, saw an opportunity to create whisky for the Japanese palate. As “the Japanese didn’t drink whisky and there was no market for it,” reports Miyamoto, “it was a very bold move.”
Torri built his distillery, which later become the Suntory Company, in Yamazaki, a suburban area famous for its water quality. He appointed Masataka Taketsuru, who had studied distilling in Scotland, as his master distiller. (Taketsuru left 11 years later to found his own distillery, Nikka.)
Torri and Taketsuru based their style on Scottish pot-still distillation recipes, so Japanese whisky tastes more similar to Scotch than any other brown spirit. Even today, most Japanese distillers source their barley from Scotland. And yet there is something undeniably Japanese about them that can be hard to put a finger on at first.
Wood, Water & Earth
One key difference is the use of Mizunara oak, in addition to traditional American and Spanish barrels, which imparts distinctive notes of incense and sandalwood. “Japanese distilleries began using Mizunara when they were unable to get enough Spanish oak during the war,” says Gardner Dunn, Suntory Beam Brand Manager, East Coast. “But they continue to use it today because of the sweet spice flavors it imparts, along with a floral, waxy finish.” Whisky in Mizunara barrels matures slower and evaporates more quickly, which also results in a more concentrated—and costly—final product.
Japanese terroir makes its imprint as well. “Scotland doesn’t have four distinct seasons, but we do,” says Miyamoto. “Look at the Scottish Highlands—it is windswept and barren. Our Hakushu distillery is surrounded by lush greenery, cherry blossoms and wild lilies—you can taste the notes of mint and flowers in the whisky.” Hakushu, located in the mountains outside Tokyo, is one of the highest distilleries in the world—its water source is fresh snow melt. “A lot of Scotch distilleries don’t believe in the influence of environment as much as the Japanese do,” says Dunn. “The water, the minerals, the surroundings where these whiskies are produced and aged give them tremendous complexity and depth.”
Though Japanese whiskies are now taking off in the U.S., they are—as they have always been—crafted for the Japanese palate. “The Japanese find many single malt Scotches too strong in flavor, and too smoky,” explains Miyamoto. “Our whiskies are more approachable and delicate, with subtler flavors.”
The Japanese also don’t believe in drinking without food, Neyah White, Suntory Beam Brand Manager, West Coast, adds: “For this reason, Japanese whiskies are made to complement a wide range of foods; they have a lighter, more flexible taste profile. The Japanese have no patience for any flavors out of balance.”
The Art of The Blend
Distilleries in Japan take a meticulous, scientific approach to blending, and believe that it can take a dizzying number of different whiskies to achieve the perfect blend. “Blenders are always important, but nowhere are blenders as celebrated as in Japan,” says White. “They provide direction for the cooperage, the distillers, and set the priorities for 20 years into the future. Blenders have incredible resources and get massive respect.” The result of this rigor is huge consistency in taste profile from year to year, and layers upon layers of flavor.
“Leave it to the Japanese to take something invented in the West and make it better,” says Stephen Yorsz, co-creator of Leave Rochelle Out of It, a whisky bar on NYC’s Lower East Side with one of the best Japanese whisky line-ups anywhere. “There is a delicacy to Japanese whisky which you sometimes see in Highland Scotches. Today I see a lot of Scottish single malts which have become blatantly Americanized with excess wood and sweetness—I call this ‘Scotch bubblegum’—yet the Japanese malts are always incredibly pure and refined.”
Old Before Their Time
Interestingly, Japanese whisky seems to achieve complexity and balance years before many other whiskies. “Because the raw distillate is so pure, and the water sources so pristine, Japanese whisky can take on this ethereal quality very young,” says Kelly Levison, spirits manager at Domaine Select Wine Estates, which recently began importing Chichibu Japanese Whisky. “One reason some distilleries age for so long is to mask imperfections,” explains Levison. “The Japanese have a certain way of doing things that is very precise and flawless.”
Ichiro Akuto, the grandson of the founder of the famous Hanyu distillery, built the Chichibu distillery in 2007 northwest of Tokyo where the winters are cold and the summers hot and humid—a climate which also accelerates maturity. Only tiny quantities of Chichibu’s 3-year-old single malts (aged in bourbon and Mizunara barrels) are available in the U.S. and they sell out as soon as they arrive—at $250 a bottle. “One restaurant told me he wouldn’t pay this much for an 18-year-old single malt Scotch, but he would have no problem selling a 3-year-old Japanese whisky for the same price,” says Levison.
The Japanese only export about 10% of their production, and less than 10,000 cases make it to the U.S. each year. It is a brilliant marketing strategy: By only exporting their very best whiskies, the Japanese quickly established a reputation as an impeccably top-quality producer. The price points are high (the Yamazaki 12-, 18- and 25-year-olds are $65, $200 and $1,600 respectively, for example) but it hasn’t slowed sales. “At Rochelle’s we specialize in affordable whisky, and I do believe Japanese whisky really delivers for the price,” says Yorsz. “To have a really well-thought out, balanced, smooth, floral whisky for under $50 wholesale, or a 3-year-old whisky that drinks like a 12-year-old, is unique. Across the board, they are competitive at their price points. And when they run out of stock, they don’t jack up the prices.”
Distilleries are innovating too, and a greater diversity of expressions is reaching American shores. Suntory’s Hakushu 12 Year Old is a peated whisky—one of the only made in Japan—and last year the distillery released the Hakushu Heavily Peated. Older expressions, like the Hakushu 18 and the Yamazaki 25 are hitting the market. Even the ultra-traditionalist, Nikka Distillery—famous for their dry, subtle style, compared with Suntory’s generally sweeter, rounder profiles—unveiled a non-age stated whisky called Coffey Grain ($70) distilled from corn and aged in ex-Bourbon casks. Imported by Anchor Distilling Co., Nikka only sends several thousand cases of their whiskies to the U.S.
Refreshingly, the relatively sudden rise to fame is not the result of big marketing budgets. “They don’t subscribe to the marketing gimmicks that other brands go for—no bogus back story or talk about ‘hand bottling,’” says Yorsz, “and yet most serious whisky drinkers today know about Japanese whisky, and request them by name. Yamazaki is a huge call brand.” It doesn’t hurt that Suntory was named Distiller of the Year for the third time in a row at the International Spirits Challenge awards. At the 2012 World Whisky Awards, Yamazaki 25 Year Old was crowned World’s Best Single Malt and Nikka won for Blended Malt.
“There was so little Japanese whisky available here just a few years ago, it was impossible to do a survey” says Gardner. “But today it is a real category—not a novelty or an oddity.” Suntory’s recent $16 billion purchase of Beam Inc. will only help Japanese whisky gain a greater foothold in the U.S. market. “I recently overheard a bartender say that you can’t open a bar and pretend to be serious about whisky and not carry Japanese whisky,” says Gardner. “The category has arrived.”