Whether it’s cars, computers, or culinary arts, the Japanese just seem to know how to refine everything down to the smallest detail. But who would have thought that fine whisky would be one of them? A longtime distilling tradition typically synonymous with the British Isles and America, the transplanted art of whisky distillation has blossomed in Japan and exploded onto the international market. Here are five things you need to know about the increasingly popular Japanese whisky.
1) It’s whisky, not whiskey.
Japanese whisky is modeled after the scotch tradition—double distilling malted and/or peated barley—before it’s aged in wood barrels. As opposed to the sweeter American bourbons and ryes, they tend to be drier, smokier, and peatier, and come as single malts or blends.
2) They use Scotch ingredients.
Most of the major distilleries in Japan actually import most of their ingredients from Scotland, using malted and sometimes even peated barley from the Isles. The individuality in taste comes from the minute details in the Japanese distilling process—the water source (the “mythical” water that Yamazaki Distillery uses comes from mountains near Tokyo), the shape of the distilling stills, and the type of wood the aging barrels are made of. Some distillers use imported bourbon barrels, but others make theirs out of mizunara, a tree only found in Japan that adds its own distinct flavor.
3) Japanese distillers aim for refinement, not consistency.
When stacked up against each other, even the experts would be hard pressed to tell the difference between scotch and Japanese whisky in a quality blind taste test. Mostly, they diverge philosophically. Scotch is made to taste like it has always tasted for centuries—Scottish distillers focus on consistency and pack in a more smoky flavor. Japanese distillers, on the other hand, look to constantly refine and perfect, leaning toward more delicate-tasting whiskies. “Japanese whiskies show a lot of restraint, a lot of elegance, a lot of technical attention to detail” says Jim Meehan, manager of PDT and mixology expert.
4) It’s a rising star.
More and more Japanese whiskies are edging out the West’s dominance on the big stage. In 2012, the Yamazaki 25 Year won the world’s best single malt at the World Whisky Awards. The Taketsuru 17 Year also won for the world’s best blended malt. “It’s actually become a bit of a coup,” Meehan says. “The Japanese are winning.”
5) It’s (unfortunately) hard to get.
Although it’s becoming increasingly popular, supply in the United States is still limited. While there are quite a few distilleries in Japan, only whiskies made by Suntory and Nikka seem to be readily available in the United States. Suntory’s Hibiki 12 year and Hakashu 12 year, Nikka’s Taketsuru 12 year, and the Yamazaki 12 year are great places to start if you’re looking to get into the world of Japanese whisky, with most of the 12 years going for around $60-$70. The best place to find them is most likely online. Check out online liquor suppliers like DrinkUpNY and Astor Wines and Spirits.