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Japanese Whisky – A Trend to Explore and Enjoy

by Harriet Lembeck

This is the time for you to learn about Japanese Whisky.  Suntory Distillery, the only game in town for at least 40 years, has four whisky entries in the U.S. market.  Now Anchor Distilling Company has added two Japanese whiskies from the Nikka distillery, making a total of just six whiskies here from Japan.  You should know that Japanese whisky is made for the Japanese people.  They like their whisky balanced, and they like to have it with food.  That means blends are very important to them, and food-friendly spirits can be a selling point.  Fine single malts, and blends of malts, however, are also popular.

The Japanese learned how to create whisky when a student of chemistry, Masataka Taketsuru, was sent to Scotland in 1919 to learn the craft.  He brought his knowledge home hoping to start a malt distillery.  In 1923, he joined a distillery that eventually became Suntory.  By 1934, he went on his own and established a distillery that eventually became Nikka.

He looked for distillery locations that reminded him of Scotland – good water, cool temperatures, and high humidity.  As explained by Neyeh White, West Coast Suntory Brand Ambassador, the most important grain grown in Japan is rice, meaning that other cereal grains get very little acreage.  Therefore, Japan imports a great deal of un-peated malt, and smaller amounts of heavily-peated malt from the U.K.  Distillers mix them with batches organized by phenol content.  Different yeast strains, assorted shapes of stills and condensers, and the use of wood from U.S. Bourbon barrels, Spanish Sherry casks and Japanese Mizunara wood, all add up to a variety of whiskies that are used in single malts and in blends of malts (All Malt or Pure Malt).  The Mayagikyo distillery built in 1974 even produces malt whiskies in pot stills, and grain whiskies in a Coffey continuous still, for some of their blends.

I tasted the six fine whiskies, cut 50% with water.  They all show a haze, which tells me there was no chill filtration of essential oils.

Two 12-year old blends.  Hibiki 12 – Blended Whisky (Suntory, 43%):  some delicate smokiness in the nose and mouth, with some fruit.  A touch of sweetness comes from aging in barrels that previously held plum liqueur.  Taketsuru 12 – Pure Malt Whisky (Nikka, 40%):  a vatted blend of malts from two distilleries.  It has a smoky character, some spice and is dry.

Two 12-year old single malts:  These are quite different from each other.  Hakushu 12 – Single Malt  (Suntory, 43%) is very pale and delicate.  Gentle, leathery notes are reminiscent of an Irish whiskey.  Yamazaki 12 – Single Malt (Suntory, 43%) has a deep color with pronounced notes of malt, smokiness and spice.  It is distinctive.

Two single malt sipping whiskies:  Yoichi 15 – Single Malt (Nikka, 45%) has smoky nose with a hint of the sea, peat and wood aromas.  Mature flavors enriched with dried fruits and toffee.  Yamazaki – 18 Single Malt (Suntory, 43%) has deeper color and aroma than the companion Yamazaki 12, aromatic with intense malty nose and strong contribution of oak and dark fruits.

David King, President of Anchor Distilling Co. says, “I expect Japanese whiskies to be a much larger part of the spirits landscape in the coming years.”

This article originally appeared in Beverage Dynamics