Last week hummus and yoga were “in”, and while they’re not out yet, there’s a new top dog in Popularville: Japanese Whisky. Notice the spelling — that’s whisky with a -y, like Scotch whisky, not whiskey with an -ey, the spelling used for U.S. and Irish varietals. The spelling harkens to Japanese whisky’s humble beginnings, which revolve around the Narcissus and Goldmund-like stories of two men.
The first, Shinjiro Torii, was a pharmaceutical wholesaler who dreamed of making a distinctly Japanese whisky for the Japanese people. The second, Masataka Taketsuru, was an organic chemistry summer student at the University of Glasgow who learned the craft of whisky-making under the roofs of several Scottish distilleries. When Taketsuru returned to Japan in the early 1920s, Torri hired him. Together, they produced Yamazaki, Japan’s first whisky, which was modeled after the Scottish single malt industry’s practice of distilling and blending under one roof. The Japanese whisky industry was born — and it’s since taken on a life of its own (for example, unlike Scottish distilleries, which often sell off their excess whisky stocks to blenders, Japanese distillers pride themselves on keeping their excess stocks for their own use).
Today, Suntory (née Kotobukiya), Yamazaki’s parent company, leaves Taketsuru’s role in the birth of Japanese whisky off their website — in 1934, Taketsuru parted with Torii to found his own distillery, Dainippokaju, which later became Nikka, Suntory’s chief competitor. Together, the two distilleries supply most of the global demand for Japanese whisky, a demand that, until recently, was fairly negligible. However, as a result of several recent victories over Scottish whiskies at blind tasting competitions, Japan’s best-kept secret escaped, and the world is eager to test the hype.
Well, we did the grunt work for you, tasting five of Japan’s finest 12-year-old whiskies: Yamazaki, Hakushu, Nikka Taketsuru, Nikka Miyagikyo and Hibiki. Drink them how you like them, but note that the Japanese typically add a dash (or a lot) of water. Follow along as we profile each one below.
The Sweetest: The first seriously marketed whisky from the distillery that started it all: Yamazaki 12-year-old. This is the classic, and for good reason. It’s light. It’s floral. It’s delicious. For what you’re getting, it’s reasonably priced. On the nose, one gets hints of zest and honey, and the palate, smooth and sweet, brings flavors of citrus with some vanilla oakiness. If you have a snobbish friend who insists on Scotch, a glass of Yamazaki should be the first class in a course of conversion to the Japanese path.
The Smokiest: Hakushu, Suntory’s third American release, comes in a green bottle (a rarity among most clear-bottled Japanese whiskies) that hints at its “green” flavor profile: leaves and fruits, particularly pear. Marketed as the “fresh” whisky, Hakushu 12-year-old comes from the forests at the base of the Southern Japanese Alps. However, you’d be forgiven (by us, at least) if you mistake this for an Islay malt. The use of peated barley, imported from Scotland, gives the whisky a smoky nose that suggests seaside origins; then you taste the delicate whisky, and find yourself transported to the forests of Japan.
The Most Surprising: When we first poured this whisky, it released little in the way of aroma. Disappointed, we put it to the side. Imagine our surprise when, ten minutes later, a second sniff yielded heavy doses of toffee and caramel. The taste — full of strong, sweet vanilla — mimicked the nose’s form: slow to build, but impressive at its peak.
The Smoothest: Interestingly, this is a vatted (a blend of single malts) versus blended whisky, brought over to the United States for the first time just last year. It combines 12-year-old malts from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. The darkest of the five whiskies (though still light, as far as whiskies go), the Taketsuru wowed our tasters with its even balance and smooth finish. On the nose, we got hints of vanilla, apple and cinnamon (apple pie, anyone?). However, honey dominated the palate — so much so, in fact, that we felt like we were drinking straight from a honeycomb.
The Sexiest Bottle: Housed in a distinct, multi-faceted, corked (!) bottle, this Suntory whisky looks like something pulled from Don Draper’s personal bar. Although the smell hints a bit too closely at Sharpie for us to wax poetic, the Hibiki gains points for using whisky aged in Mizunara, a rare Japanese oak, as well as casks formerly used to hold Japanese plum liqueur. Like the Nikka Miyagikyo, the Hibiki is rich and thick, bordering on syrupy. The taste mirrors the honey and vanilla of other offerings, but with an oily texture and small notes of fruit.