Until relatively recently in the United States, Japanese whisky was something of an insider’s secret. But no longer: recent high-profile headlines, such as the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 winning the title of World’s Best Whiskey in 2015, have brought a spotlight to the category—and have some producers scrambling to keep up with intensifying demand.
Japan has produced whisky for almost a century. Suntory’s founder Shinjiro Torii began building the Yamazaki dis- tillery outside of Kyoto in 1923 after studying the production methods of Scotch whisky. The Yoichi distillery, now owned by Nikka, opened in 1934.
While other brown spirits may come with a laundry list of production and aging requirements, there’s only one rule about how to make Japanese whisky: that it be made in Japan. Unlike in Scotland, where distilleries tend to craft a house style, Japanese distilleries make their own blends from whiskies aged in different types of wood (Mizunara, a local Japanese oak, is popular) or made in different stills (Coffey stills, compared to the more conventional continuous still, for example). More controversially, some producers are making whisky from rice, compared to the more traditional grains of barley, wheat, rye, or corn.
What this means, according to whisky expert Lee Anne Wong, chef and owner of Honolulu’s Koko Head Café, is that “Japanese whisky has a wide range of nuances and flavors, ranging from smoky, leathery and peaty, to sweeter notes of vanilla, spice, caramel and toffee.” If there is one constant, Wong says what sets Japanese whisky apart is the texture, which she describes as “smooth, silky, ultimately drinkable with or without ice.”
Production spans the range from everyday drinkers to rare that command price in the thousands of dollars. Growing worldwide demand has placed pressure on Japan’s dwindling supplies of aged whisky, forcing some distilleries to temporarily phase out production of whiskies bottled with age statements. Rare bottle hunters will have fun tracking down increasingly hard-to-find bottlings, such as the Hibiki 17-year or Hakushu 12-year, both of which will be in limited production after 2019.
If mixed drinks are more your speed, also make it a good candidate for cocktails. Honolulu’s downtown speakeasy Bar Leather Apron showcases a slate of cocktails made with the Japanese spirit, including the Imperial Old Fashioned (Suntory Toki, Hakushu 12 year, Angostura bitters, Wasanbon sugar, liliko‘i, shiso essence), Sherry Highball (Nikka Taketsuru, sherry, maple and soda), and the Taketsuru Smash (Nikka Taketsuru, shiso, yuzu, lemon and soda).
At Yauatcha, the Cedar Smoked Old Fashioned can be made with any Japa- nese whisky. Lead bartender Skipper Bonano had recommends choosing ei- ther the Yamazaki 12 or the Hakushu 12, which she then stirs with smoked maple syrup, angostura and orange bitters before pouring over an ice sphere and smoking the glass.
But if you want to preserve the special character of the spirit, make sure to keep it simple. “My personal favorite way to enjoy a Japanese whiskey, and all of its complexity, is either neat or served on a large sphere of ice,” says Bonano.
Lee Anne Wong agrees, noting that the best bottles “are deserving of only ice or a few drops of water.” If you’re going to make mixed drinks, she recommends Suntory Toki, Kikori Rice Whisky and Akashi White Oak—and not making anything too complicated. “Even in cocktail form, I would keep the additions simple, as Japanese whiskey offers its own complexities you wouldn’t want masked by an overly sweet mixer, so I find soda water and wedge of fruit or a twist is all I need.”