When you think of whisky, what comes to mind?
A dram glittering on the bar top. The fresh, salty air of Scotland. Maybe a famous distillery or two.
What about Japan?
Japan? you’d reply incredulously. What about Japan?
Japan, the land of sushi, cherry blossoms, and … whisky. With a number of international whisky competitions wins under their distilleries’ belts, Japanese whisky is undoubtedly a malt to watch out for. Although, not it may not be the malt you expect. Let’s unravel the mystery of Japan together.
A far cry from their Scottish counterparts, Japanese whisky revels in its own philosophy. What do they call it? Harmony. What do we call it? Multifacetedness. Which one is the right answer? Well, both. After all, these two qualities play a part in making whisky from the Far East so special.
Let’s begin with multifacetedness. Whisky in Japan varies across distilleries for a number of reasons: distilleries do not share stock or trade casks; the laws governing whisky production are not as strict as in the U.K., allowing for more creativity and flexibility; and the sheer innovation found through equipment—the variety of production techniques used in making Japanese whisky is unparalleled.
Imagine this: stills of all shapes and size; unique yeast strains; a variety of cut points. Pair this with distinctive flavours of oak and wood, from apple to cherry blossom, and you’ve got a stage set for experimentalism galore.
That being said, we can find consistency in the second principle of Japanese whisky making: harmony. The process of continuous, incremental development that results in beautifully balanced flavours and aromas; the signature character of a Japanese whisky: subtly delicate yet powerful with notes of honeysuckle, toffee, acetone, and orange. Harmony is key; perhaps that’s why blended whiskeys are infinitely more popular on these shores. Japanese whiskies flavours celebrate paying a homage to a wide spectrum of fruits, which gets refined by the smoothness and sweetness.
Beyond that, when you taste Japanese whisky, you taste history. The Japanese have been in the whisky making business now for nearly a century. Even though that may be still young by Scottish traditions but by instilling the high standards of perfectionism amplified by Japanese tradition that is what makes them whisky stand apart. The first single malt in Japan made its appearance in the late 1970’s when Karuizawa Single Malt Whisky was launched. Suntory and Nikka then quickly followed suit by introduction of Yamazaki and Hokkaido malt whiskies. The pursuit of quality is so intensified that Suntory has their own forests in Spain, where they selectively choose trees for making sherry casks.
Some of the famous Japanese whiskies are the Yamazaki 12-year old with its distinctive floral character and full-bodied taste; the Nikka Coffey Grain whisky with notes of vanilla, corn, and crunchy biscuits; and the Hibiki Harmony which boasts carefully balanced flavours of honey and wood.
Let Tipple and Dram @Ann Siang Road in Singapore transport you back to an artifact from the moment when Japan ended its two hundred years of isolation upon U.S. emissary Matthew Perry held a banquette on his ship. Here, we can reexperience first taste of whiskey on Japanese soil. Or let us take you back to the time of Taketsuru, better known as the founder of Nikka, a teenage chemistry student who was sent abroad to Scotland to learn the art of whisky-making. A whole world awaits!