It was my first sip of Hibiki, the blended whiskey from the powerhouse distiller Suntory, that first opened my eyes to the possibilities of Japanese whiskey. That was back in 2010. I had tasted few whiskey blends that had as much flavor, depth and appeal. It remains my favorite of the Suntory products on the American market, but I've come to appreciate all four, as well as the two Nikka whiskeys that arrived late this year.
I realize that this half dozen is just the tip of the iceberg. While researching this article for the New York Times, I tasted samples of many more. (A favorite: Chita, Suntory's grain whiskey, which serves as the base of Hibiki. Unfortunately, it's not sold commercially.) I've rarely seen such consistency of quality in any liquor category the world over, not to mention elegance. Brandy Library's Flaven Desoblin was right on target when he said "Japanese whiskeys are very much the fine-wine-drinker’s take on whiskey."
Here's the article:
Japanese Whiskeys, Translated From the Scottish
By ROBERT SIMONSON
ONE of the most expensive cocktails in New York can be found at Ryu, the Japanese-inspired restaurant that opened last spring in the meatpacking district. It’s a Sazerac variation called Shogun’s Grip and it’s ticketed like a four-star entree: $35. Adam Schuman, then the beverage director, had a good excuse for the stiff tariff. Its base is 18-year-old Yamazaki, the Japanese single malt made by Suntorythat can cost $140 a bottle.
The Shogun’s Grip’s price means Ryu doesn’t sell more than one or two a night. But it doesn’t keep bottles of the Yamazaki from disappearing off liquor-store shelves. Quite the contrary.
After decades as an also-ran in the American whiskey market, Japanese whiskey is on the ascent. Last year, Suntory’s sales in the United States rose 44 percent, according to the company, which found it difficult to keep up with demand. So it increased prices of the Yamazaki 12- and 18-year-olds by 10 percent last year and this year. “We like the consumer to recognize Japanese whiskey as very high end,” said Yoshihiro Morita, Suntory’s executive manager for American sales and marketing.
Japanese whiskey has been produced commercially since the 1920s, when the Yamazaki distillery was built. Compared with Scotch, Irish whiskey and bourbon, it is still the new kid on the block.
But now that those other categories have been thoroughly rediscovered by Americans over the last 30 years, it’s Japan’s turn. The embrace has been nudged along by the fact that you can finally buy Japanese whiskey here.
Suntory quietly introduced the Yamazaki 12-year-old in 1990, and that was the only option until 2005, when the 18-year-old arrived. By 2010, the United States had its first Japanese blended whiskey, Suntory’s Hibiki. And last year, the Hakushu 12-year-old made its debut. The company’s domination of the American market will be challenged later this year when its archrival, Nikka, sends in the Single Malt Yoichi 15-year-old and Taketsuru Pure Malt 12-year-old.
“Up until two years ago, if one in 20 customers had tasted Japanese whiskey, we were lucky,” said Flavien Desoblin, owner of Brandy Library, the TriBeCa spirits emporium. “Now, out of 20, a good 5 know that it exists and they’ve had it. That’s quite a lot for the land of bourbon.”
Sales have grown enough that Suntory has seen fit to draft two brand ambassadors in the United States, first the New York mixologist Gardner Dunn and then the San Francisco bartender Neyah White. At the time of his hiring two years ago, Mr. White was no great devotee of Japanese whiskey. “I respected it, but I wasn’t swinging that flag around too heavily,” he said. “I was a little dismissive of it, to be honest. The world of whiskey was so big.”
For much of the 20th century, Japanese distillers were perceived as little more than Scotch makers manqué. Masataka Taketsuru, Suntory’s first master distiller and Nikka’s founder, studied his art in Scotland and chose distillery sites that resembled its terrain and climate. Producers even spelled whiskey the Scottish way, without the “e.” While there’s no denying that Japanese whiskeys taste more like Scotch than, say, bourbon, connoisseurs now focus more on what sets them apart.
“The founder of Suntory wanted to create an authentic Japanese whiskey that appealed to the delicate palate of the Japanese: subtle, refined, yet complex,” said Mike Miyamoto, who was Suntory’s master distiller for 10 years. “To make such a subtle taste, you need a lot of whiskeys to blend. If you have one or two colors, how good a picture are you going to make?”
But finding all those blending elements is not easy. Unlike Scotch makers, who swap liquid back and forth to build their blended whiskeys, the Japanese distillers do not trade. Instead, they create countless in-house variations, using various yeasts, species of barley and peat levels.
They send the distillates through an array of stills of different shapes and sizes, then age them in a wide variety of barrels: virgin American oak, used American barrels from various suppliers, former sherry butts and wine barrels. Adding a distinctive native flavor to some of the whiskeys are barrels of expensive Japanese oak (called mizunara), which is thought to lend aromas of incense, and used plum-liqueur barrels.
With all those treatments on hand, distillers can let their passion for blending run wild. And there lies another difference. In Scotland, the single malts are the fair-haired tots, while the blends are the moneymaking, sometimes uninspired workhorses. The Japanese take their single malts seriously, too, but their blends never take a back seat.
“The Japanese blend for completely different reasons,” Mr. White said. “Blending for them is not an efficiency thing. They make all these different whiskeys so they can pull them all in, in a way that will perform well in a Japanese drink, which is almost always a sort of highball.”
Hibiki, which is composed of more than 20 different whiskeys, “shows best when you water it down,” Mr. White said. “It’s subtle and complex at the same time. It’s hard to define.”
Mr. Desoblin had no trouble defining the appeal. “Japanese whiskeys are very much the fine-wine-drinker’s take on whiskey,” he said. “There is more attention paid to the body and the texture in Japan than in many other countries. They are looking for that delicate, suave, mouth-coating feel, but never really aggressive. They seem to be powerful, but it’s all silky.”
Because of the high price points, aside from the Yamazaki 12-year-old, the Suntory products are not often used in cocktails. In fact, when Suntory’s chief blender, Shinji Fukuyo, first heard about Mr. Schuman’s Shogun’s Grip, he was not happy. He thought it a desecration of his masterpiece. So Mr. Dunn took him to Ryu to sample the offending drink. “After a moment,” Mr. Schuman said, “he gave a nod of approval.”