03 Jan Why Japanese Whisky Is The Spirit You Need To Try Now
A few hours west of Tokyo, tucked into the undulating folds of the Japanese Alps, sits Suntory’s Hakushu whisky distillery. Here, at 2,200 feet above sea level, ensconced in acres of alpine forest and bird sanctuary, the pot stills hum noisily while lacy threads of mist and fog linger over the maturation warehouse. A few more hours to the north Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery hugs the edge of a magnificent forest populated with bamboo and maple while a stream of water, prized for its purity, threads its way through the property. In both settings the whisky production is roaring at full capacity to meet surging global demand, but one is hard-pressed to distinguish distillery from nature, water from whisky, or landscape from building. It all seems to bind together in a curiously Japanese fashion, delicately balancing every detail into one seamless compelling thing—in this case, whisky.
Indeed, this modest island nation on the edge of the Pacific Ocean—thousands of miles from the nearest Scottish Highland or Kentucky field of bluegrass—is presently home to some of the most coveted, highly-awarded whiskies in the world. Some may find that surprising, but Japan, the land of sake, sushi and precisely engineered automobiles has been quietly distilling every type of whisky imaginable for nearly a century.
The brown spirit got its start in 1929 thanks to Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii, who started production in 1923, introducing his whiskies to the Japanese market in 1929. Torii is widely recognized as a pioneer in Japanese whisky and credited with crafting whiskies ideally suited to Japanese sensibilities—exhibiting subtlety, complexity and balance.
However, Japanese whisky remained off the global radar until a perfect storm of high-profile awards (including a sherry cask Yamazaki being named Whisky of the Year in 2015 by renowned critic Jim Murray), surging demand for whisky, and better global presence catapulted the Japanese spirit into the rarefied ozone of scarcity and high demand. Today Suntory, the largest producer of Japanese whisky expressions, (including Yamazaki, Hibiki, Hakushu, and Toki), is hustling, along with other Japanese brands, to meet demand.
So what is all the fuss about? In a word: balance, exquisite unparalleled balance. At each Suntory distillery you’ll find a complex orchestra of different pot still styles, grains, and oak barrels used to compose distinctly Japanese whiskies; whiskies that strike a deft balance between the wild woolly notes of Scotch and the fat sweet notes of Bourbon. If you are inclined to either Scotch or Bourbon, you will most certainly find something to like about Japanese whisky. Mike Miyamoto, brand ambassador for Suntory, recalls the first time he poured Japanese whisky (a Yamazaki) for Americans. “Eight years ago no one knew our whiskies and I had a tasting booth at a shop in Gainesville, Florida. Many just passed us by, some stopped, curious but dubious, asking if it was made of rice. Finally, someone asked for a sip. And once he sipped I watched the expression on his face change from skepticism to surprise. I knew then we would be welcome throughout the world.” He was absolutely correct–but these whiskies are more than welcome, they are in the process of establishing a serious foothold on the whisky market.
Japanese culture is a precise ballet of detail and harmony. It is a culture of noticing–all things and all elements. It is why we love their technology and their cars because every detail is remarkably thoughtful. It is why, when I sip one of these whiskies there is no clumsy beginning, middle or end. It is all one silky complex sip of forest, water, malt, and grain made thousands of miles away on an island in the Pacific. And, all of this is precisely why you need to try Japanese whisky now.
The Suntory Skinny:
Yamazaki: Best known as Japan’s first distillery and built near the some of the nation’s purest waters. The temperate rainforest climate lends perfect conditions for cask aging. The Yamazaki 12 Year is most widely available ($85) but seek out brand’s other single malt expressions such as the 18-year-old ($250) and 25-year-old ($1,600).
Hakushu: This alpine distillery was constructed roughly 50 years after Yamazaki and leverages the high altitude temperature extremes to develop flavors during maturation. It is one of the highest distilleries in the world; the whiskies from here show prominent fresh apple notes and threads of smokiness. Hakushu offers a 12-year-old ($85) and 18-year-old single malt ($250).
Hibiki: This whisky, a blend of grain and malt, is also the most highly awarded blended whisky in Japan. Hibiki has a 12-year-old ($65), 17-year-old ($150), 21-year-old ($250) and Harmony ($65).
Toki: This is the latest expression from Suntory—a uniquely smooth blend of malt and grain from the different distilleries. Toki is the ideal whisky for crafting a Japanese favorite: The Whisky Highball composed of whisky, sparkling water, and a stacked glass of ice. (finish with a twist of lemon if you want). Suntory Whisky Toki ($40).