Superb Japanese Whiskies for Winter
by brandy rand
photograph by William Brinson.
Using “Japanese” and “whisky” together in a sentence is often met with raised eyebrows. Known for sake, Japan’s pursuit of brown spirits is often too easily dismissed in favor of centuries-old established Scotch. However, among whiskey enthusiasts and amid today’s dark-liquor cocktail resurgence, these Japanese gems are quietly becoming an important addition to Boston bars.
The origins of Japanese whisky (spelled without the “e,” like Scotch whisky) go back to 1923, when Shinjiro Torii founded the Yamazaki distillery outside of Kyoto, with the goal of creating a whisky that complemented the country’s delicate cuisine. Today, Suntory is the sole Japanese whisky exporter to the United States, with Yamazaki 12- and 18-year-old single malts and Hibiki, a 12-year-old blend, in its portfolio. In 2010, the company won Whisky Distiller of the Year at the Icons of Whisky Awards, the first time a Japanese company had ever been honored.
Ryan Maloney, whiskey expert and owner of Julio’s Liquors (140 Turnpike Road, Westborough, 508-366-1942; juliosliquors.com), has seen a steady growth in popularity for Yamazaki and Hibiki among single-malt drinkers looking to expand their horizons. Likewise, Aaron Butler, bar manager at Russell House Tavern (14 JFK St., Cambridge, 617-500-3055; russellhousecambridge.com), credits the success of his Kobayashi Maru cocktail, made with Yamazaki 12, to the overall increase in whisky drinking as well as the worldly palates of local imbibers. “Bostonians are willing to try something new. This is an educated community,” he says. Butler decided to use Yamazaki 12 in his cocktail because of its creamy, spiced wood characteristics; now it’s one of the most popular cocktails on the menu.
So what makes Japanese whisky special? Look to the wood and the weather. Barrel aging is instrumental to the production of any whiskey— the type of wood used imparts distinct characteristics to the liquid. Yamazaki is aged in three types of oak casks for three different flavor profiles: American white oak (vanilla), Spanish oak (chocolate, caramel, raisins), and, most unique, Japanese oak, called mizunara (spicy). Unlike Scotland, Japan has four distinct seasons with broadly changing temperatures. During aging, barrels expand and contract based on temperature, imparting a more intense flavor. Maloney likens it to the terroir often associated with wine. He has turned a lot of single-malt and blended Scotch drinkers on to Hibiki 12, a mellow Japanese blend that sources malt from both the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries.
Soon Bostonians can look forward to a new brand from Suntory: Hakushu 12 Years Old, scheduled to be available in early 2012. Considered the Japanese connoisseur’s choice, Hakushu, a green whisky, is produced at high altitude using waters from the Japanese Alps.
Remember the days when sushi—now ubiquitous—was for adventurous foodies only? Among spirit aficionados and bartenders worldwide, Japanese whisky is poised to become as in-demand as rye (and raw fish). For whiskey enthusiasts, and even tentative tasters, these offerings are an exotic change of pace with the ability to please a variety of palates.
Wallpaper, Thibaut. Ailanthus Showroom, Boston Design Center; bostondesign.com