Asked to list Japan's best exports, most people wouldn't name whiskey. But after 90 years of dedication to the craft, Japanese distillers are finally being recognized for their top-notch hooch – whiskeys that can be elegant, fruity, and floral yet powerfully spicy and smoky all at once. At last March's World Whiskies Awards in London, famed distiller Suntory (see Bill Murray-in-Japan flick 'Lost in Translation') took the title of best blended whiskey for its Hibiki 21; the year before, Japanese brands were named best blended malt and best single malt. Sales are spiking, too: In 2010, Suntory exported 5,000 cases to the U.S.; this year, they'll ship 12,000. Japan's other main producer, Nikka, has brought two styles stateside to compete. Angus McShane of Los Angeles whiskey bar Seven Grand says his customers can't get enough of the stuff – literally. "We did a cocktail with Yamazaki 12 that became so popular we had to take it off the menu because we couldn't get enough product," he says. "That was two years ago, and we still get people asking for it." Because Japanese whiskeys are made in the Scotch tradition (malted barley, aged in oak), they were long seen as mere imitations of their U.K. counterparts. But there are differences. Suntory's and Nikka's distilleries dot the lush, mountainous islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, whose pure water, naturally filtered through granite, gives their whiskeys a soft, smooth quality. Some are also aged in Japanese oak, which imparts rich, fruity flavor. Perhaps most significant, Japanese distilleries do not share their malts and blends, unlike in Scotland, where producers buy whiskey from makers all over the country to create their booze. It's part of the reason Japanese whiskeys are often in short supply, and why they're so reliably good. "If they're not able to produce a certain amount, they don't say, 'Let's just get something from a different area,' "says McShane. "They simply won't sacrifice their product. Because of it, they've been able to really fine-tune their own whiskeys and turn out something remarkably consistent."
Though Japanese whiskeys range widely in flavor and body, from the light to the more bold, they are all very well balanced, a characteristic McShane says makes them great for new whiskey drinkers. "They're very approachable," he says. "I give the Yamazaki 12 as a gift for that reason." As for his personal favorite, McShane says it's impossible to choose: "Every time I've been introduced to a new Japanese whiskey, I've been even more impressed. So I'd say my favorite is the one I have yet to try."
Credit: Eric Risberg / AP