Japanese Whisky

By Andrew Court

My guess is that most of you are bourbon drinkers.

You like that smooth all-American flavor and balk at the brisk thistle assault of OG Scottish whisky. This is a major plank in the Field Ethos party platform where bourbon is the drink of choice after, before, and during dinner.

Personally, I like them both. Sometimes a healthy pour of Pappy over a singular ice sphere is just the tits, other times the only thing I crave is a wee dram of Laphroaig 10 Year Old.

Recently though my thoughts on the matter have changed. After extensive field testing I can say that Japan makes the best—or at least my favorite—whiskies around.

Now before you force me to commit seppuku, hear me out. You probably already realize that there’s stuff the Japanese are just better at. Why did you go with a Toyota and not a Jeep or Land Rover? What prompted you to pick out that almost indestructible Seiko Turtle or Casio G Shock? Whisky is no different.

The story of Japanese whisky begins in 1923 when Shinjiro Torii founded the Kotobukiya Company. This would later become Suntory, one of the biggest names in the industry. He hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had studied whisky-making in Scotland, bringing this tradition to Japan. If you’ve seen the film Lost in Translation you probably remember Bill Murray’s rye delivery of the advertising line “for relaxing times, make it Suntory time”.

In 1934, Masataka Taketsuru left Suntory to establish his own whisky distillery, Nikka Whisky. He chose the northern island of Hokkaido as the location due to its climate, which was similar to that of Scotland. The Nikka Whisky Company would go on to become a significant player, and this author’s favorite brand, in the Japanese industry.

World War II brought challenges but after the war Japanese whisky production resumed. Distilleries shifted focus to high-quality spirits away from drunkards hooch.

The 1960s marked the golden age of Japanese whisky. Distilleries like Yamazaki and Hakushu, Suntory brands, produced single malts that started to get noticed outside the country. This success came from an approach that emphasized precision and balance, leading to lighter and more delicate flavors compared to the robust and smoky whiskies of Scotland.

Perfect for the converted bourbon drinker.

In the 80s and 90s, Japanese markets tanked putting these high end distillers in a bind tighter than a Sumo wrestlers loincloth. They decided to double down on the export market. The strategy paid off and in 2001 Nikka’s Yoichi Single Malt won the “Best of the Best” award from Whisky magazine. Enthusiasts and collectors worldwide began seeking out rare and limited-edition bottles, driving its popularity upward.

Japanese whisky’s fame reached its peak in 2014 when Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible named the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as the “World Whisky of the Year.” Like everything these days, being popular created a bunch of challenges. Distillers face shortages of aged whisky, leading to increased prices and limited availability of certain bottles.

My first personal experience of Japanese whisky came at a Yakitori joint on a ski trip to Canada. The Yama-No-Kami Pub was located at the bottom of the Mont Tremblant ski mountain and by the wall of bottles and the smug air of the bar staff, I knew the whisky would probably be good.

The bartender poured a couple fingers of Yoichi Single Malt. This whisky manages to express a delicate balance between smokey and fruity aromas. In the past I felt like I had to make a choice. If I wanted something smoky and peaty I had to get a Scottish whisky, if I wanted something more fruity and smooth I had to go with bourbon. This bottle squares the circle and somehow has the pleasantness of bourbon with the complexity of single malt. Thank God the Canadian dollar was weak because the five of these that I ended up ordering didn’t come cheap.

Like a good millennial, I took pictures of the bottles. Back home in Miami I did a dragnet sweep of the local liquor stores to build my supplies. When guests come over I cajole them into trying it, and no one has left unhappy.

A little bit of international competition is healthy. Toyota inspired American car manufacturers to make more reliable vehicles. I think Japanese whisky can inspire American and British producers to step outside of their own stereotypes. If you’re bored with the contents of your bar cart, these are a great way to try something new.

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