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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Rise of Japanese Whiskies - Scooting Out Scotland?

The Suntory distillery in Japan
It’s called the land of the rising sun and though we equate small electronics, Hondas and Hello Kitty with Japan, few realize that whisky has long been part of the fabric of this country. Whisky summons images up Scotland and Ireland and even parts of the American Bible Belt, but whisky in Japan has been made for over 85 years. Suntory’s Japanese whiskies available in the U.S. include Yamazaki 12 and 18-year old single malts, and Hibiki, a blended whisky which gained attention when people saw it in the 2003 film Lost In Translation starring Bill Murray. Murray’s character is in Tokyo to shoot a whisky commercial when he befriends Scarlett Johansen, and that whisky is Hibiki.

The first dedicated Japanese distillery didn’t appear until 1923 and though the training of the innovative Japanese, who learned traditional distillation techniques from the Scots themselves, might imply these are Scotch whiskies dressed up to look Japanese, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there are similarities, but the Japanese have created an entirely different take on whisky. The two fundamental differences are the wood used to age the whisky, and the water used for distillation. Whisky in Japan is aged in American and Spanish oak casks, old bourbon barrels, but the use of Japanese mizunara oak from Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, creates a unique texture not found in traditional whiskies, imparting a sweet, citrusy element. Water too is essential to the making of any great spirit. “Nestled on the periphery of Kyoto, this region was formerly referred to as ‘Minaseno’ the field where one of Japan’s purest waters originates,” says Yoshi Morita, Sales and Marketing Manager at Suntory. And it is where the three rivers, Katsura, Uji and Kizu come together to form the Yodo River. The water used in the Yamazaki whiskies is the same water originally used for Japanese tea ceremonies as far back as the 16th century. Hibiki deviates from Yamazaki in that it is a blended whisky, utilizing bamboo charcoal filtering and laborious blends of multiple whiskies. Once the whisky has been aged in white oak casks it matures in Umeshu casks which are plum liqueur-seasoned, and this creates a slightly fruity aroma. The addition of malt aged more than 30 years adds to the unique blend.

Dave Broom author of the The World Atlas of Whisky knows more than me. Broom says that Japanese whiskies have been successful in Europe and Scandinavia, and that there’s some growth in the U.S. But what is driving this relatively new attention to Japanese whiskies? “Interest in all things Japanese, from food, lifestyle and aesthetics, combined with a growing interest in single malts,” Broom tells me. And Scotch single malt drinkers, ever a rising category, are discovering something new and untasted before. Additionally with the hip factor of single malts, there are new drinkers coming to whisky with no preconceived limitations of where whisky should come from, and no trained rhetoric that Scotland should be the premier maker of whisky. The problem for the U.S. is that the majority of Japanese whiskies are not yet available here, like Irichio’s Malt, Nikka, and Karuizawa, among others. Which begs the question: Is Japanese whisky similar to the pet rock, and frozen yogurt, merely a fad that will burn brightly, but then fade? “I think the novelty factor is there for sure,” Broom suggests, “and is one way in which people first try it, but as the category grows, as the brands become more widely available, it becomes a choice based on taste.” And Japanese whiskies are winning a number of international spirits competitions based on taste and not pedigree, since competition means the submitted whiskies are tasted blind. “Japanese whisky might not be able to slug it out with Scotch blends, but in single malt? Yes,” Broom says. He suggests that even the biggest-selling global single malt, Glenfidich from Scotland, only sells a million cases worldwide, therefore a brand such as Yamazaki can compete. And we know from history that if the Japanese want to dominate a market category – ever heard of Toyota and Sony? - they can do it. Overall production is low but there is an assertive group of Japanese distillers who want to see their whisky on your table in Los Angeles and New York. “Japanese distilleries were not producing significant volumes a decade ago. What you are seeing now is the start of a long campaign,” Broom advises. Indeed Japanese distilleries are anxious for the U.S. market but they still need to handle the vexing labyrinth of American import rules, regulations and tariffs, plus the needed capital to sustain a long advertising war, and that still could take years. At any rate, if you get the chance, try a Japanese whisky.

The interior at Suntory
~Yamazaki 12 Year Old ($45)
A light fruit and spice to the nose, then it coats the moth with a heavier viscosity followed by sweet cherry and dried fruit back note. There is youthfulness to this whisky, bright and celebratory.

~Yamazaki 18 Year Old ($125)
A deeper, richer nose on this older sibling paves the way to a smoky, soft and mature sweet oak single malt, stronger on the mid-palette. There is a mellowness present here, nearly sherry-like, ideal for sipping.

~Hibiki 12 Year Old ($55)
With scents of caramel apple, vanilla and butterscotch with a whiff of nutmeg, this blended whisky is soft on the front palette, letting lose on the back where it expresses itself best, ending with a near pepper note.

~Irichio’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (not available in the U.S.)
The Japanese oak in this whisky, nearly a fruit-driven plum and apricot, restrains the higher alcohol content. There’s a whisper of sweet here though balanced against the soft malt. These are small batches, tough to find, but present an idea of boutique distilleries coming of age in Japan.

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