Precise, elegant and distinctively different, Japanese whiskeys are as weightlessly perfect as a finely crafted haiku. Dave Broom looks at a glorious world of highballs, harmony and hipsters
It happened around 2008. I’d been going to Japan on a regular basis for a few years by then, fascinated by its whisky distilleries, the style they produced, and in the country’s wider whisky culture. This was different though. Something to cheer a Scotsman’s heart. Whisky and soda on draught.
It was everywhere, from industrial-looking dispensers in backstreet izakayas to beer-style taps in slightly more salubrious bars. Osaka’s Samboa and Tokyo’s Rock Fish had never stopped serving the Highball (in both cases: one tall, cold, glass, ice-cold Kakubin, chilled bottled soda, lemon twist, no ice), now, suddenly, everyone was at it.
The Highball was how Japan’s domestic whisky market hauled itself out of an enormous hole (see Broomy's history class below). Its whiskies had become specialities, something for the geeks
and nerds clustering in the tiny high-end bars where Japanese single malt vied for space with hundreds of bottles of scotch. It had become a specialist area.
The Highball showed that whisky was back by bringing in a new audience: drinkers less obsessive about detail, but looking for a great, refreshing drink. Could the same thing happen here?
We are still stuck in the same mindset which has prevailed here since Japanese whisky began to be exported at the start of the millennium. It means single malt. It means expensive single malt.
It is more visible for sure – it’s there in supermarkets and specialist off-licences, has a presence in most bars, and is the focal point in establishments such as London’s Bull in a China Shop and Sexy Fish. But for Japanese whisky to truly prosper we have to understand why, and how, is it different, and how, and when, it should be consumed.
A rocky start
Its character was the result of the unfortunate commercial failure of Japan’s first whisky (a blend called Shirofuda) which was launched in 1928. ‘Too heavy, too smoky, too… “scotchy”,’ said the Japanese public. Its creator Shinjiro Torii (whose firm became Suntory) realised that for his whisky venture to succeed he needed to make a whisky which was much lighter in character, which could go with food, and which suited the Japanese climate.
These days, Japanese whisky comes in a multitude of different characters but they are unified by having a transparency in terms of aroma – a lifted, aromatic intensity but an ordered, balanced and precise flavour. They are whiskies with finesse, rather than just blunt power.
It’s achieved by distillers using clear wort (to eliminate nutty, cereal notes), long fermentations (to promote fruitiness), different yeasts (adding a new range of flavours) and, in some cases, using mizunara (incense-laden Japanese oak).
THE CATEGORY WAS BUILT ON BLENDS, AND IF IT IS TO INCREASE SIGNIFICANTLY THEN THEIR IMPORTANCE WILL HAVE TO GROW
Unlike in Scotland, distillers don’t exchange any stock for their blending requirements, so the major distilleries make variations on a central theme which are aged separately. This variety means that, for example, the components making up a Yamazaki 18yo will be from that distillery but will be different to those used for Yamazaki 12yo. This approach, I believe, helps to give Japan’s single malts greater roundness and layering.
These, then, aren’t scotch copies – that idea was put to bed almost a century ago – but a different style of whisky with compelling flavours which have to be behind the bar, because they offer new opportunities in terms of flavour and serve.
Neither is Japanese whisky restricted to single malt. The category was built on blends, and if it is to grow significantly then their importance will have to grow. Blends give variety and they give volume. Nikka’s From The Barrel and Suntory’s Hibiki Harmony are beginning to change people’s perceptions of what blended whisky is – perhaps because they have less baggage than scotch.
For me, the Japanese grain whisky category is significantly more advanced – and actually better thought through – than scotch’s. Nikka’s Coffey Grain and Malt appeal to both new drinkers and intrigued single malt aficionados; while Suntory’s recently launched The Chita offers a lighter but balanced alternative.
And by the end of the year the grain from Fuji Gotemba (which produces three distinct styles) should also be in the UK. All of which will help change people’s perceptions of grain whisky, Japanese whisky… and, to be honest, whisky itself.
The range of single malt distilleries is also widening. Chichibu has deservedly built a cult following thanks to its innovative, questing approach, while Mars Shinshu – recently reopened after a 25 year hiatus – and White Oak are both here, albeit in tiny quantities.
There is a commercial imperative for this innovation. Japanese whisky has to maintain momentum even at a time of stock shortage. It can’t wait for equilibrium between supply and demand to be reached and then say, ‘what would you like?’ The whisky world is increasingly competitive. Scotch’s fortunes are returning, American whiskeys are surging, as are Irish, while Canada is also gaining in confidence. Stir in world whiskies, and Japan’s current status as whisky’s hip young gunslinger is under threat.
Continued success has to come through quality, character and long-term engagement with the worldwide bartending community.
Serves behind the stick
All of this feeds into the emergence of this greater range of options within the Japanese whisky category and the development of different serves, and glimmerings of an understanding of what lies behind Japanese bartending.
It’s not just about exemplary technique, it’s more to do with a philosophical approach which is inextricably bound up in service and making the best drink you can at that moment. This concept, ichi-go ichi-e ‘one time, one meeting, one encounter’ is, thanks to the work of Stan Vadrna and Nikka’s Perfect Serve, gaining traction internationally.
The talks given internationally by Bar High Five’s master Hidetsugu Ueno also help to dispel the notion that ice balls aren’t just flashy demonstrations of skill, but are actually used for a specific purpose, occasion, brand, and season.
JAPANESE WHISKY DOESN'T NEED TO BE RESTRICTED TO THE TOP SHELF. IT CAN BE - SHOULD BE - IN PUBS AND RESTAURANTS AS WELL
This last element is also central to a Japanese approach to whisky drinks. Tokyo’s Takayuki Suzuki uses crushed ice to make Yamazaki Mist, a cooling low-temperature drink, ideal for hot, humid days, while serving the same distillery’s 18yo late at night with an ice ball.
The serves can be in a cocktail, but can be simple Highballs or mizuwaris (mixed with two parts water). In Suntory’s Chita pop-up bar in Nagoya last year, guests’ palates were prepared with a small bowl of dashi-rich broth to highlight the umami of the whisky, and could then choose from a selection of Highballs with different garnishes, or an ‘aged’ mizuwari; Chita and water mixed 24 hours previously and, amazingly, softer and more generous on the palate than a freshly-made one.
All of these show a really deep understanding of aroma, flavour and texture: when is the whisky’s character at its most appropriate? What serve shows it to its best advantage? And how can season or time be matched by a whisky?
Japanese whisky doesn’t need to be restricted to the top shelf. It can be – should be – in pubs and restaurants as well as bars. Yes, it is more expensive, but a carefully chosen selection will work.
Ignoring it means missing out on new flavour options for drinks, and the growing interest in ‘brand Japan’ which touches on food, art, music, and fashion. As has been proved, it can be as simple as adding soda…
Dave Broom’s The Way of Whisky: A Journey Around Japanese Whisky (Mitchell-Beazley) will launch in Autumn 2017. Keep an eye out for our review
Broomy's history class: the story of Japanese whisky
Japanese whisky is still considered by some to be the new kid on the block, the upstart which dares challenge scotch’s hegemony. In fact, whisky has been distilled in Japan for 94 years. Its ‘newness’ is due to the fact that it was barely exported until the start of this millennium.
Its birth was a result of increased trade links between Japan and the west (specifically Scotland) at the end of the 19th century. A desire for imported goods led to Japanese distillers deciding that they could make their own whisky.
Yamazaki was the first dedicated whisky distillery in Japan, and while Yoichi followed in 1933 it wouldn’t be until the post-War period that significant growth started. New distilleries opened, more brands appeared.
By the 1960s, whisky was the most popular drink for the Japanese ‘salarymen’ who helped fuel the country’s economic boom. Vast amounts of whisky – mostly blended, often cheap, many bolstered with Canadian and Scotch whiskies – were consumed as mizuwaris, although a premium 100% Japanese category was simultaneously being built.
Further expansion of the category saw the construction of large plants at Miyagikyo (Nikka), Gotemba (a joint venture between Kirin and Seagram);
and Chita and Hakushu (Suntory).
Bust followed boom, however, and in the late 1980s the industry went into steep decline as a new generation adopted shochu. By 2007, an industry which had once sold 225 million bottles a year in Japan alone was selling 50 million. Distilleries were either mothballed, put on short-term working, or closed. With a depressed local market and a stock surplus, distillers looked to export.
The decline lasted 25 years before Suntory’s Highball initiative stimulated domestic interest. With global demand also rising, distillers didn’t have sufficient stocks of aged whisky, which has lead to rationing, a focus on key markets, and the introduction of no age statement brands.
The major distilleries have expanded and upped production, but it could be eight years before stocks are fully balanced. New distilleries have also opened (Chichibu, Shizuoka, Akkeshi, Tsunuki, Yonezawa, Asaka, Nukada, and Miyashita) while some have reopened (Mars Shinshu, White Oak).