Japanese Whisky: A Beginner’s Guide
Scotch, bourbon, and rye—even if you’re not a whiskey connoisseur, chances are you’ve tried at least one of them. But the comparatively delicate flavor of Japanese whisky is less likely to have crossed your palate, especially since Japanese distillers have only been exporting their goods in large quantities for about 15 years.
If you have yet to get acquainted with Japanese malts, Dave Broom thinks that should change.
The editor-in-chief of Whisky Magazine: Japan and the author of The World Atlas of Whisky (the second edition is due out this October), Broom is an advocate for the accessibility of whiskey. He wants the world to know it’s not just for old men gathered around a fireplace late at night.
“These days we tend to think ‘Thou shalt not’ in terms of whiskey: you can’t add water, you can’t add ice, et cetera, et cetera. But it’s simply not true,” he told me from his office in Brighton. “You don’t need to be scared by it. You can drink it long, you can drink it mixed, you can have it in cocktails, you can have it neat, if you wish. ... Free your mind, as George Clinton said.”
In line with this freethinking spirit, Broom also recently completed a second book, Whisky: The Manual, which ranks more than 100 malts on how well they blend with the world’s most common mixers.
Broom is adamant that, though it may be unfamiliar, you don’t need to be scared of Japanese whisky. To that end, he gave me a crash course on whiskey’s so-called newcomer, and guided me through its surprisingly long history—a history that dates back to two visionary distillers almost a century ago. Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru started out as partners, but parted ways to found the two biggest whisky producers in Japan: Torii’s company became Suntory, and Taketsuru’s is known today as Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.
Modeled on Scotch
“It was 1919 or 1920 that Shinjiro Torii bought a plot of land between Kyoto and Osaka and built a distillery in this little town called Yamazaki. But then he thinks, ‘Oh my God, who’s going to make this whisky for me?’ Enter Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru had been sent by another company to Glasgow University to study chemistry and crack the secret of how scotch whisky was made. He went to university, he worked at a couple of distilleries, he married his landlady’s daughter—this is all in the space of about 18 months, so he’s a smooth operator. But when he returns to Japan in 1923, his company’s gone bust, and here’s Torii looking for a distiller.”
But It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Whisky
“If you’ve been to a scotch facility, and then walk around a Japanese distillery, you’d see the same equipment. The malted barley comes from Scotland, everything within the distillery looks the same, the wood is effectively the same, so what’s the difference? Is it just a scotch copy? No. Fundamentally not. Torii realized after the first attempt to make whisky, in 1928—the first one that launched—and it wasn’t a success because it was too heavy, it was too smoky, it was too powerful. For whisky to be successful in a domestic market, it had to appeal to a Japanese palate, which is lighter, it had to complement Japanese food, which is more delicate and more intense, and it had to suit the Japanese climate, which tends to be really humid in summer.”
There’s a Reason You Haven’t Seen It Before
“This assumption that Japanese whisky is new simply isn’t true. But especially since the 1950s, the Japanese have had such a love of whisky that they drank it all themselves. So they had no need for export. They only started exporting around the turn of the century, actually. The dawn of the millennium is when you start to see Japanese whisky exported in some volume, but even then, it’s not massive. So it’s only just now that suddenly the world wakes up to the fact of this industry.”
The Mountain Stream and the Clear, Still Pond
“If you put a scotch single malt next to a Japanese single malt, you’ll notice that the Scottish single malt has got a nutty, cereal character within it. It’s kind of a defining character of scotch. Basically every single malt from Scotland has got some element of this cereal character. Japanese whisky doesn’t. Japanese distillers go to some length to ensure that that character isn’t there. Which means that the flavors are more intense, they’re not just more delicate, they’re more lifted and more ordered. The analogy I use is that if you think of a Scottish single malt as being like a mountain stream bouncing over the rocks, and you can’t quite see the bottom as the water is rushing past. There’s all these things happening at the same time. Whereas Japanese whisky is more like a still pond that you can see right into. It kind of offers itself up totally to you.”
Balance Through Blending
“In Scotland, you’ve got 150 single malt distilleries, and distillers swap between themselves. You know, a distiller wants something smoky and they don’t have something smoky in their own estate, so they swap ... because each distillery has a really intense, individual character. ... That doesn’t happen in Japan. Each distillery, of the big distilleries, is set up to produce different characters at one site. It’s completely different from the Scottish approach. You have a whole number of different approaches and these are blended together; you get more of a totality. For me, scotch single malt, which I love obviously, it’s kind of pointy and intense, like a triangle, whereas Japanese single malts are more of a circle.”
Nikka Versus Suntory
“Nikka whiskies tend to be bolder, Suntory whiskies tend to be more restrained. But it’s a matter of degrees, really. The smokiness in Yoichi is bigger and more oily, the fruitiness in Miyagikyo has a more overt peachy persimmon quality [both from Nikka –Ed.], whereas smokiness in [Suntory’s] Hakushu is very controlled, very reserved. For me, that’s the difference.”
If you’ve never had a drop of whiskey: “The very first Japanese whisky I would kick you off with would be Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve. It’s got no age, and it’s about to come out in the States. I would have it as a highball.”
If you dream of Lagavulin every night: “If you like big, smoky scotches, then go for Yoichi 15, no question.”
If you drink nothing nothing but piña coladas: “I would try the Hibiki 12 Year with coconut water.”
If you’re in Chicago, a good place to introduce yourself is the bar at Japonais by Morimoto, a small portion of whose selection is pictured in the article.
Photo of Dave Broom courtesy Octopus Publishing; photos at Japonais by Morimoto by Timothy Burkhart, Groupon