4 Questions About Japanese Whisky, Answered
by Kyle Chayka
WAIT ... HOW DID WHISKY EVER LAND IN JAPAN?
In 1918, a student named Masataka Taketsuru left for Glasgow University to study organic chemistry. But once he arrived, he fell in love with another kind of chemistry—distilling. When Taketsuru returned home, he helped start Japan’s first whisky distillery, modeling it after everything he’d learned about scotch.
SO WHAT MAKES IT DIFFERENT FROM SCOTCH?
Technically, not much. Most Japanese distilleries are so committed to following Scottish standards that they go as far as to import their barley from the UK. While they don’t stray from the formula, Japan’s distillers “take time to make it correctly rather than making it quickly and cheaply,” says spirit expert Nick Korn. The refined result is something whisky lovers appreciate. “Everything is careful and thoughtful and beautiful.”
WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?
Whereas scotch can be blunt and peaty, a Japanese dram may have more floral notes. The liquid extracted from grain mash—called wort—is finely filtered, making a sipper that isn’t as nutty. Japanese distilleries also use rare Mizunara oak for their barrels, which imparts a hint of coconut. “All the flavors have to happen in fermentation, not distillation,” says Korn. U.S. drinkers might prefer single malt, but it’s worth exploring other options. “The majority of whiskey that’s sold in Japan is blended,” Korn says. “And the blend can be more delicious. It has the Yin and the Yang.”
HOW SHOULD I DRINK IT?
A “highball” in Japan is synonymous with a whisky soda. So mix away! But if you like drinking it neat, a great starter blend is Nikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Year. It’s a blend of purely malt whiskey that’s both fruity and smokey—a great, balanced flavor profile, and at $70 a bottle, given the incredibly high quality of the blend, a relative bargain and great, well-rounded introduction to a world of whiskey worth exploring.