Japanese Whisky’s Big Moment

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GreenRiver Chicago's Japanese whisky cocktail Anthony Tahlier)

The whisky world was stunned when Suntory’s 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cast Single Malt was named the best whisky in the world by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, the first time that honor had gone to a Japanese whisky. But Japanese whisky’s ascendancy was a long time in the making. Although it’s been in production for almost 100 years, it really started to make noise in the spirits world in 2001, when Whisky Magazine named Nikka’s 10-year Yoichi “Best of the Best.” Then in 2003, Suntory’s 12-year Yamazaki won gold at the International Spirits Challenge. All the international acclaim meant it was a matter of time before American drinkers started demanding it, and now whisky from the Land of the Rising Sun is competing with bourbons and single malts from Kentucky and Scotland. 

There are two leading Japanese whisky makers: Suntory, which operates the Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita distilleries; and Nikka, which operates Yoichi and Miyagikyo. Spread around the country, each distillery takes advantage of the climate and nature unique to its location to create an identity. Julia Momose, head bartender of GreenRiver in Chicago, explains that each company has “so many stills and so many different types of barrels and so many different techniques that they’re able to create this ridiculous palette of flavors and aromas.”

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Momose, 27, who was born and raised in Japan, started tending bar when she moved to the U.S. to attend Cornell. “Japanese whisky is definitely my passion,” she says. “What’s gorgeous about Japanese whisky is it’s not about consistency as much as making the best thing in that moment. In this moment this is the best it’s going taste, and we’re going to make it this way, and then next year’s product will be similar but different.” This reflects the Japanese value of Ichi-go ichi-e, Momose says, which roughly translates to “one encounter, one opportunity.”

For U.S. consumers, however, those opportunities can be hard to come by, as demand outstrips supply and prices skyrocket. Yamazaki only made 18,000 bottles of its 2013 award-winner, which now goes for about $2,000. “Japanese whisky’s become so popular that they have really needed to start taking away their age statements, just because the demand is so high that they’re not able to let the whisky rest as long. Those bottles are becoming collectors’ items,” Momose says. “Their answer to that is the blends.”

Momose’s original cocktail menu for GreenRiver and its adjacent bar, the Annex, features three Japanese whisky cocktails. The Gray Wolf was her take on an old fashioned using Yamazaki 12 year single malt, but the drink was so popular that they were going through cases and cases of the whisky. “I thought, we have to hold back so that we don’t sell every last drop of the liquid in its pure form,” she says, and eventually replaced the single malt with the Hibiki Harmony blend, which uses whiskies from all three of Suntory’s distilleries.

For those adding Japanese whisky to their home bar for the first time, Momose suggests starting with the blends. “They are certainly no less delicious and perfectly crafted than the single malts. It takes more finesse to make a blend than to let a single malt be itself. What they did with Harmony was absolutely exquisite for the price range.”

But whether you splurge for a single malt or start with a blend, whisky is meant to be enjoyed, she says, “find your favorite way to drink it and then just do that.”

“People think if you add water you dilute it and lose flavor, but rather it opens everything up. When you’re trying a new whisky, first take a sip to see it for what it is, take in everything. Then maybe add a piece of ice, then add a splash, and then a big splash, and then maybe try a highball. That’s my suggestion for how to approach Japanese whisky.”

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