Fine Living

Land of the rising dram

With a clutch of distilleries producing award-winning malts and blends, Japanese whisky is now a serious and distinctive proposition for the palate. Alice Lascelles reports.

September 24 2010
Alice Lascelles

Remember that scene in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray submits reluctantly to a promotional photoshoot for Suntory whisky? Perched awkwardly on a stool, he clutches a glass gingerly in one hand, while the other floats unnaturally somewhere round his ear in a cheesy imitation of suaveness, much to the delight of the Japanese crew.

Well, while you were chuckling away at the Japanese attempts to emulate Western-style whisky, Suntory has actually been having the last laugh. Last year, the company saw off competition from the Scots, Irish and Americans to claim the title of Whisky Magazine Distiller of the Year, crowning four years in which the company has quietly amassed more than 50 international awards for its Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu whiskies.

But this story is not just about Suntory. The airwaves are also crackling with names such as Yoichi, Nikka, Hanyu and Karuizawa, as a nascent export market allows whisky lovers to taste many of Japan’s malts and blends for the first time.

So, it may come as a surprise to hear that Japan has, in fact, been making whisky commercially for nearly 90 years. The country’s first distillery, Yamazaki, opened in 1923, and was the work of Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii and scientist-turned-master distiller Masataka Taketsuru, who learned his craft after a trip to study chemistry in Glasgow transformed him into an ardent student of Scotch.

But the idea that Japanese whisky is simply a cheap knock-off of Scotch is quite mistaken, says drinks writer and editor-in-chief of Whisky Magazine Japan, Dave Broom. “It definitely has its own individual identity. It has a clarity of aroma, almost a transparency about it. All the flavours are there that you’d find in Scotch, but it’s just that some of them are more intense, as if they have been turned up, not louder but a little brighter. Japanese whisky is whisky in HD.”

Like Scotch malts, Japanese malts are made from malted barley, and mostly aged in a combination of former sherry and bourbon barrels. But there are certain whiskies that possess a note you won’t find anywhere else, which comes from Japanese oak. Both scarcer and harder to work with, Japanese oak is used to age and finish a small proportion of Japanese whiskies, imparting a seductive aroma of incense sticks, gorse flowers and spice that is quite unforgettable.

“I like to call it ‘temply’,” says Marcin Miller, a former editor of Whisky Magazine who was “so blown away” by Japanese whisky on his first visit to the country in the early 1990s that he set up Number One Drinks Co to import some of the rarer bottlings. Among them is a fabulous example of this “temple” note – the single cask Hanyu 1991 Cask No 370 (57.3 per cent abv, about £110 for 70cl), which aches with atmosphere. It’s full of musky honey, jasmine, truffles, smoke and tea and, with fewer than 360 bottles distributed worldwide, it is certainly a malt to meditate upon.

Another fine example of Japanese oak in action is Japan’s biggest-selling single malt, the fragrant, biscuity Yamazaki 12-year-old (43 per cent abv, about £35 for 70cl). Distilled just outside Kyoto, it’s made more “temply” by the fact that there is a Shinto shrine at the distillery, set at the foot of a hill and sheltered by dripping bamboo and maple trees. The Yamazaki distillery is, all in all, very satisfyingly Japanese – uniformed gardeners prune jasmine, copper-pot stills gleam pristinely, and even the warehouse doorway has been designed to frame a perfect composition of maple trees and waterfall, in an architectural nod to the traditional tea house.

Behind the scenes you’ll find all the high-tech efficiency you’d expect of a Japanese operation. And yet some of the traditional techniques will never be bettered, says Yamazaki’s executive general manager, Hiroyoshi Miyamoto, who prefers to monitor the pot stills by eye and palate rather than computer, “because, at the final judgment, human sense is the most important. It’s we who make whisky, not machines.”

Three hours north-west of Tokyo, Yamazaki’s sister distillery, Hakushu, is equally enchanting, sitting in the dappled light of the green and red maple forest it shares with a bird sanctuary. Snow-capped mountains rise in the distance, swathed in wisteria and azaleas and, on a good day, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance. The region has a slightly cooler in climate, and this distillery’s younger whiskies boast serene notes of green apple, honeydew melon, lime and hay, which fatten up and sweeten with age. The Hakushu 12-year-old (43.5 per cent abv, about £49 for 70cl) strikes a nice balance, with tangy, fruity fino sherry and hot hay notes on the nose, and oilier, crystallised honey and soft peat on the palate.

Japanese whisky can be brawny too. If that’s more your style, seek out malts from the Karuizawa distillery – whose motto is “stout like a soldier” – and try the nutty oakiness of the Karuizawa 1982 Sherry Cask (56.1 per cent abv, £125 for 70cl), or plead a dram of the sold-out Karuizawa Single Cask 1985 (60.8 per cent abv, cask No 7017), which is all figs, Tarmac and mouldering forest floor on the nose, with a long palate full of soot, tobacco and salty/sweet quince jelly. Alternatively, if you’re a peat fan, the Yoichi distillery right up in the north on Hokkaido island, makes a 10-year-old (45 per cent abv, about £55 for 70cl) that’s wonderfully earthy, packing sun-baked driftwood, bonfires and spicy plum cake.

Yoichi also supplies much of the malt used in the Nikka range of blends – Nikka From The Barrel (51.4 per cent abv, about £26 for 50cl) is increasingly cropping up in London bars, although my personal favourite is Nikka Pure Malt Black (43 per cent abv, about £31 for 50cl), which is like walking on a warm, wet fellside and coming across a spent campfire, while eating a really ripe peach.

In short, the variety and character to be had from less than a dozen distilleries is staggering. But Japanese whisky gets even more fun when you start to explore how they drink it. For the Japanese are big fans of taking their whisky long, either mixed 1:4 with water and ice – a serve known as mizuwari – or with soda (or even a mix of soda and tonic), which is called a highball. Heresy, some may say; but on a hot, sticky night in Tokyo, it makes a lot of sense.

And if that still sounds like a humble whisky and soda to you, wait until you try it served over a hand-carved “ice gem” the size of your fist. Few bars do this better than the superb Star Bar in Tokyo’s Ginza district, a cocktail bar the size of a railway carriage where waistcoated bartenders carve your ice to order. Also in Ginza, malt-lovers’ mecca Hibiya Bar Whisky-S offers six types of highball, each with different ice, as well as flights of cedar, sherry and oak-aged whiskies that you can then blend to taste.

In Japan there is also a much stronger tradition of drinking whisky with food. It’s not unusual for a host to order up a bottle of Hibiki 12-year-old blended whisky (43 per cent abv, about £38 for 70cl) and to mix highballs for his guests at the table. It’s not just a very agreeable ritual, it’s an excellent way to explore flavours, says Broom: “I heartily encourage people to try whisky with sushi. People often drink whisky with ginger wine or ginger ale – well, that also works with pickled ginger. The fermented note from the malt also builds a flavour bridge to soy, while smoky whiskies work very well with fish and seaweed.”

And on the subject of blends, the Japanese are pretty good at those too: the rich, dark cocoa-and-figs profile of Hibiki 30-year-old (43 per cent abv, about £500 for 70cl) won Best Blended Whisky in the World in both 2007 and 2008 at the World Whiskies Awards.

Back in London, bartenders are now catching on. “Japanese whisky offers a new way of tasting; a whole other world to describe,” says Mark Jenner, manager of the Coburg Bar at The Connaught. In fact, Jenner is so smitten with the spirit he now lists around 15 bottlings, making it one of the best destinations for Japanese whisky in London. You can be sure there will be some ultra-rare gems among them. “When you’re talking about something such as the Hanyu bottlings,” says Jenner, “it’s all so unique, so specialist and refined, and in such small volumes. Whether it’s the hand-carved ice or a unique bottling, Japanese drinking is bespoke to the nth degree.”

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