It wasn’t too long ago that finding Japanese whisky was like discovering an obscure bird. Rare, and once found, you never wanted the experience to end. Although distilleries in Japan have been producing whiskey for years, it is only recently that the western world has discovered their rich pleasure.
Being introduced to Japanese whisky can be likened to a vacation for your taste buds. All of the familiar elements of whiskey are there, but there is also a distinct flavor that makes it stand out. Yamazaki 12 is a great example of a high-quality Japanese whisky. Aged for 12 years, the whiskey is an ideal starting point for someone who already loves the flavor of bourbon. This single-malt whiskey is a bit sweeter than what one might expect, with unmistakable honey notes that you will grow to love.
Japanese Takes on Classic Whiskey Cocktails
In order to introduce these new flavors to whiskey lovers, mixologists have found creative ways to highlight their flavors in cocktails. These drinks all have an obvious Asian flair, making them even more appealing to the adventurous drinker:
The Amber Cocktail
Found on the menu at the trendy SakaMai in New York City, the Amber Cocktail mimics the classic whiskey sour. Yamazaki 12 is blended with a citrus known as yuzu, egg white, and wasanbon – which is a type of Japanese sugar. For effect, a small amount of that sugar is also brûléed on the top of the cocktail, providing a sweet scent to this delicious drink.
The Spicy Suntory Sidecar
Charred, whole jalapeños are added to Yamazaki 12 to bring out its smoky flavors. This is then balanced with a touch of Cointreau and lemon juice to make a savory sidecar. You’ll find this interesting concoction served at both locations of the upscale sushi restaurant KOI in New York City, but it is simple enough to try making at home.
Yamazaki translates to Mountainside, which happens to be the name of a trendy cocktail being served at the exclusive Momofuku Restaurant in New York City. This variation of the Old-Fashioned calls for homemade fennel to be blended with the Japanese whisky. Orange bitters are then added before the drink is poured over ice and placed in your hand.
Après-Ski In Fuji
This sweet variation of the Manhattan uses Hakushu 12, another whiskey distilled in Japan. The sweet vermouth Antica and St. Germain are blended with the whiskey to help bring out its smoky flavors while cutting down on its sharp punch. Patrons of New York City’s 15 East will find this unique cocktail on the menu, along with an array of zesty sushi creations.
At a French café in the West Village of New York City, whiskey lovers can indulge in a Japanese version of the classic dessert drink. The Atholl Brose is a Scottish cocktail that blends honey and cream with Yamazaki 12. Topped with a thick layer of whipped cream, this drink provides a warm ending to a cold New York evening.
What You Need to Know About Japanese Whisky
For some, it came as a shock when “Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible” named Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best whiskey in the world for their 2015 edition. Yet for those who have already had a taste, this came as no surprise. Japanese whisky has been heading towards the mainstream drinker for decades, with a history that is as rich as its bold flavors.
Japanese Whisky is Not as New as You May Think
The first whiskey distillery in Japan was built during the 1920s. The Yamazaki distillery was constructed near Kyoto, producing whiskey that was consumed throughout Japan for most of the 20th century. In recent years, its unique flavors have become popular in Europe and across North America. This can be attributed to savvy campaigning, and a taste for something different in the market.
Japanese Whisky is Modeled After the Scot’s
The first master distiller of Suntory – Masataka Taketsuru – studied in Scotland before bringing those methods back home to Japan. Not only were pot stills used to make Yamazaki whisky, some distilleries went so far as to import malted and peated barley from Scotland. This makes for a new whiskey, which still has roots that date back hundreds of years.
Lost in Translation
Actor Bill Murray may be partly to blame for the sudden surge in popularity of Japanese whisky. In the 2003 film “Lost in Translation” his character, Bob Harris, heads to Japan to work for the Suntory distillery. The distillery even had its own tagline in the movie: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time”, a sentiment that is well understood after the first sip. Those spots featured in the film did actually appear during the 1990s, but it was actor Sean Connery who appeared in them.
What’s With the ‘E’
Since Japanese whisky has its roots in the Scottish varieties, it takes its cue from them when it comes to spelling as well. Unlike American and Irish versions, which put an ‘e’ in whiskey, Japanese whisky brands leave it out.
Japanese whisky has been earning awards and grabbing the attention of experts around the world since the beginning of this century. An international tasting event held by Whisky Magazine in 2001 named Nikka’s Yoichi Whisky the “Best of the Best”. Suntory has been earning awards at the International Spirits Challenge since 2003, along with accolades and kudos from experts in all areas of the industry.
Japanese whisky is divine straight, or with your favorite classic mixers. It also has those unique elements which lend themselves to creativity behind the bar, and a whole new generation of cocktails to fall in love with.