Japanese Whisky: A New Tradition

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Suntory, Japan’s first and most prominent malt whisky distillery, announced last week that they were going to purchase Jim Beam for about $13.5 billion. Although not yet a household name in the states, Suntory, and the ever more visible Japanese whisky industry, are set to take the whisky world by storm.   Japanese whisky and Japanese whisky culture are rooted in Scotland, but also include aspects of Japan’s own heritage. The spirits are made exclusively of malted barley, distilled in pot stills, aged in oak barrels, and reduced in alcohol by local water sources.  There are also important differences that affect the taste of the whisky: maturation in barrel takes place more quickly than in Scotland due to Japan's greater temperature swings. Japanese distillers take advantage of their local oak varieties, which grow slowly and impart high-toned floral and spice flavors, and Japan’s water sources are unique to the country and show different qualities depending on their location. In Japan, whisky is seen as an accompaniment to a meal, and must be flavorful, but not too dominating. The Japanese may experiment with peating malt (the process in Scotland by which malt picks up smoky, iodine tones) but they don’t make whiskies that feature smoke as the dominate flavor. In Japan, it’s most important to maintain a sense of harmony between the fruity, floral, oily, salty, and mineral flavors that fine single malt can show. This doesn’t mean that the whiskies are light or insipid - on the contrary, it is customary in Japan to add water to the whisky or serve it in a highball, so it is very important that the malt has enough character to withstand the dilution.

For those interested in trying Japanese whiskies, the time has never been better.  Much of both of the Suntory and Nikka lines are available in the states, and some of the next generation of hyper-small batch whiskies like Chichibu are starting to trickle in. We don’t think that the aged bottles will ever be commonplace in our market — the thirst for whisky in Japan has a long history; the best malt shops in Scotland have been long supporters, and perhaps surprisingly, the French have taken to Japanese malt with a passion, so there’s a lot of demand for these whiskies.  We are excited to add them to our shelves, and we encourage fans of all spirits to give them a try! JR

 

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Suntory 12 Year Japanese Blended Whisky Hibiki

Although not a true single malt, I think that Suntory’s Hibiki is one of Japan’s signature whiskies.  Hibiki consists of Suntory’s single malt from both Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries and a touch of grain whisky.  The spirit shows dense fruit with orange rind, peach, and violet flavors.  The palate is incredibly smooth and offers almost no alcoholic bite or burn.  The big fruit flavors and generous personality are the result of the use of casks that previously held plum brandy.  When recently tried, I loved the balance of subtle honey with richer fruit and vanilla.  JR

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Nikka NV Taketsuru Whisky Pure Malt 750ml

To many Japanese whisky connoisseurs, blending is almost as important an art as distillation. The Pure Malt series is a testament to combining two very different whiskies from Nikka’s Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries. The salty notes of Yoichi bring out the fresh fruit flavors of Miyagikyo, and the MIyagikyo’s pure honey tones complement the savory character of the Yoichi malt. Also great for those who can’t decide!  JR

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Nikka 12 Year "Miyagikyo" Single Malt 750ml

Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery is known for producing a light malt of elegance with pure fruit and a subtle touch of smoke. Nikka founder, and Japanese whisky forefather Taketsuru, spent years searching for a distillery to contrast his coastal Yoichi distillery.The distillation process is gentle, which gives the whisky an elegant profile. We highly recommend this for lovers of Highland and Speyside styles of Scotch.  JR

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Nikka 15 Year Old Yoichi Single Malt 750ml

In contrast to all of Miyagikyo’s elegance and juicy fruit, Yoichi shows lots of salty, biscuit-y character and a pronounced whiff of smoke. The distillery was built on the island of Hokkaido where the climate replicates some of the severe sea-swept islands off of the western and northern coasts of Scotland. Like Islay’s Laphroaig, the stills here are short and onion-shaped to allow a larger percentage of heavy malt to end up in the resulting whisky. The stills are also coal-fired—a practice once traditional in Scotland, but now abandoned in favor of more automated methods. A unique and delicious whisky for fans of peated malts!   JR

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Chichibu 3 Year Ichiro's Malt Japanese Single Malt

**Full disclosure, we have not tried this whisky** Our sales rep offered us two bottles, and after we read the full story behind the spirit we agreed to take them. Chichibu is a new distillery run by one of Japan’s most celebrated whisky personalities: Ichiro Akuto. Ichiro’s grandfather built a distillery in the region in the 1940s. In the 1980s they hoped to transition into single malt production. Unfortunately the costs involved proved overwhelming, and the doors were closed in 2000. Since then the whiskies produced have become somewhat legendary, and Ichiro Akuto was able to salvage some of the whisky filled casks. Ichiro’s new venture, Chichibu, strives to be Japan’s only completely Japanese distillery: Japanese barley grown locally, malted locally, aged in Japanese oak, and reduced by local spring water. They are not there yet, but the three-year old preview has sold out instantly in every market.  Bottled at 59% alcohol, but reported to taste rich and round without overwhelming harshness.  JR

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