After a hard day of chasing 8-year olds around a classroom trying to retrieve my markers and diagrams back, I love the smooth taste of a fine gentleman’s refreshment, with the zingy aftertaste and the rich aroma that floats around your head.
Finding scotch whiskey or bourbon in Japan isn’t that hard as most supermarkets carry some from overseas, like Jack Daniels and Label 5. However, finding a native Japanese whisky that isn’t single malt can be a bit hard. So, since I’m not a picky drinker I started drinking Japanese Single-Malt whiskeys.
Japanese Whisky has a history of popular consumption going back nearly 100 years. Suntory’s subsidiary Yamazaki started production at its first distillery in 1923, and the Nikka brand joined in production in 1934. Both brands have enjoyed enormous popularity, and have put Japanese whisky on par with anything else brewed in the world. Just last year, Nikka’s Yoichi 20 Year-Old brand whisky won the gold medal for single malt at the 2008 World Whisky Awards. So, basically, Japan is making the finest whiskey anywhere in the world. Feel free to blush, Scotland, and not because of your kilts.
Despite the struggle to overcome the perception of Scotch mimicry (exacerbated by the fact that Suntory’s founders Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru had learned to make whisky from Scottish distillers in Scotland), Japanese whisky has come to enjoy a worldwide following, which is spreading rapidly beyond the elites and the New Yorker-ites. There used to be a silly stigma about things coming from Europe being improved on by Japan (trains, fashion, and restaurants come to mind), which gave a hearty sense of competition and a decent sprinkling of nationalism to the Scottish-Japanese whisky wars. Last year, the whisky world favored Japan over Scotland, and so it looks as though this may be yet another upgrading of a European innovation by a Japanese organization.
I’m not one to pitch stones at either side – I enjoy drinking whisky no matter where it comes from. Just to help you out if you’re starting out on whisky though, try to remember that Japanese whisky is largely single-malt and made from barley (sometimes rye) and is traditionally more delicate to the palate than Scotch. It is usually offered at Izakayas in several ways (like oyuwari and mizuwari, being served with warm and cold water respectively), on the rocks, or by request with soda. It usually runs from about 400 to 800 yen, but you can find upper class whiskies as you go to the more exclusive establishments (you can even find World Champion Yoichi in certain places if you are willing to open the wallet and be a bit generous to the financial concerns of the owner).
If you are accustomed to Scotch whisky, remember that most Japanese whisky is meant to be eaten with delicate, slightly salty Japanese food, and is not going to fit in with the grilled steak or the burger as well as it is with the marinated tuna or other savory and umami-tasting foods. That should keep your taste buds from doing a 180 and make sure you get the most flavor out of the Japanese whisky – the former laughing stock of the whisky world now turned champion.