“When the time comes, even a rat becomes a tiger.” –Japanese proverb
Shortly after I took up my post here at B-21 I heard someone speak of Japanese Scotch. What? Isn’t that tantamount to French Chianti? There are rules, people. Hell, there are laws. You can’t just call something Scotch. Let me clarify. The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 (UK) expressly states – among other things – that Scotch whisky may come only from Scotland. The Japanese do make whisky. Darned fine whisky. But they can’t (and don’t) call it Scotch.
Evidence exists of Japanese home whisky distillation in the 19th century as well as the importation of Scotch and American whiskies well before that, but nothing commercial. In 1918, a young man named Masataka Taketsuru left Japan to study chemistry at Scotland’s Glasgow University. He assumed an internship at a local whisky distillery, carefully studying the Scottish method. In 1920, Taketsuru returned home, Scottish bride in tow, with the desire to implement his new craft. Three years later, with Taketsuru on board to oversee operations, pharmaceutical wholesaler Shinjiro Torii founded Japan’s first whisky distillery, Suntory Yamazaki, and the Japanese whisky industry was born.
Everything about Japanese whisky smells of Scotch. They omit the “e” (spelling it “whisky”). It’s typically a blend of both Japanese grain whiskey and either Japanese or Scotch malt whiskey. It’s made from double-distilled grain whiskies and malt whiskies – crafted from lightly-peated barley malt – cooked in pot stills. And it’s aged in oak. Three types. American, Spanish, and Japanese mizunara, each adding, respectively, dry, vanilla notes; raisins, chocolate, and caramel; and a subtle, spicy sweet character.
Nailing the ingredients and the technique wasn’t enough. Matters of the heart often interfere with our ability to remain objective. To that end, Japanese whisky endured its own set of prejudices. Think wine: New World v. Old World. Folks endlessly debate the merits of each style. As did California winemakers, Japanese distillers ultimately enjoyed their Judgment of Paris at Glasgow’s 2008 World Whisky Awards. “Japanese whiskies performed magnificently,” offers Whisky Magazine editor Rob Allanson, “and they are really starting to make waves.” Two Japanese distillers scampered home with awards previously scooped up by the Scots. Suntory? “Best Blended Whisky.”
You have to admit, your interest level indicator bulbs are flashing. What’s up with this Suntory Yamazaki 18? Is it worth a look? Is it good? In short, it’s better than good; it’s great. Whisky Magazine has been blind-tasting folks on this stuff and the results are proof positive that Japan has arrived. And, unlike its Scottish cousin, the Yamazaki pairs up better with food. Smooth and honeyed, it’s an amazing complement to light Japanese fare. Aromas of prune, toffee, marmalade, and strawberry accompany a palate of creamy butter, sherry, and spice. It lacks the peaty slap in the face of an Islay, but that was the goal. Softer, smoother. And the aging on Japanese oak really lends an interesting depth, heightening this rather unique “not Scotch” experience. My two cents: If you’re a Scotch drinker and you’re reading this, you’ve likely run the gamut of Scotland’s various offerings. Yamazaki is not only tasty and remarkably smooth; it’s a great conversation piece. Did you even know the Japanese exported super premium whisky before now? Moreover, to sweeten the pot, we will donate $10 for every bottle we sell to the American Red Cross relief effort currently underway for our friends across the Pacific. Recap. You get an amazing bottle of Scotch-styled whisky, your purchase lends to a very worthwhile cause, and you have the opportunity to quell the burn in your curious zone. A round of warm fuzzies for everyone. As always, I leave you with a relevant sentiment, this time another Japanese proverb: “One who smiles rather than rages is always the stronger.” I like that.
Top “Other” Whisky – San Francisco World Spirits Competition (2009)
Best Blended Whisky – World Whisky Awards (2008)
Double Gold – San Francisco World Spirits Competition (2005)
97 points & Gold Medal – Beverage Tasting Institute