Bartenders Guide: Japanese Whisky

“When love is deep, much can be accomplished”- Shinichi Suzuki
(Japanese violinist and teacher who introduced millions of children to his "Suzuki Method", 1898-1998)

In May of 2008, despite intense competition from traditional Scotch whisky powerhouses, the Yoichi 20 Years Old Single Malt was awarded "Best of Show" at the World Whiskies Awards by a panel of judges from Europe, the United States and Japan. The London based competition, organized by Whiskey Magazine, hosted more than 200 labels that were divided into categories based on regional and style variations.

Here's the thing, though: the Yoichi 20 Year Malt is produced by the Nikka Whisky Distilling Company on the island of Hokkaido...and for those of you who don't quite understand what "Best of Show" means, it means "we kicked your ass."

First it was cars, now this.

I'm a little hurt, and I'm not even a Scot. I have always held Scotch in the highest regard, and frankly, I have sometimes snubbed my nose at the Japanese attempts to imitate it. But you know what?

They deserved it.

They have studied the art and methods of the traditional Scotch masters, and they have unlocked the secret...and the secret, is Love.

Love of pure, artesian waters, misty salt air and the gentle warmth of burning peat. Love of layer upon layer of flavor, lingering on the palate and gently evolving, long after the spirit has passed your lips.

If it were just science, everyone else would have copied it by now. It's more than that, and the Japanese know it. They savor it, as it should be savored, in either the Oyuwari (mixed with hot water, as with Sweet Potato Shochu) or Mizuwari (mixed with two thirds water) style, allowing it to open up and reveal its depths.

They love it. And I'll be damned, but I'm starting to love it, too.

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Whisky has been produced in Japan since 1870, but it was not produced commercially until 1924, by the Yamazaki distillery. Japanese whisky emulates Scotch Whisky in most respects, and therefore is also spelled without the "e".

There are currently about 10 distilleries producing whisky in Japan, but the two most well known are Suntory and Nikka. Both produce blended as well as single malt whiskies.

One of the chief differences between the Japanese style of whisky and the Scottish, is their method of doing business.

The vast majority of Scotch sold in the world is blended, and Scottish distilleries typically focus their efforts on a single malt which is then sold to a blender who uses several whiskys to achieve the desired flavor profile. The Japanese are more reluctant to share products with competing distilleries and it has been argued that this lack of diversity has lessened the quality of Japanese blends.

Recently however, individual Japanese distilleries have begun producing a greater range of malts, thus achieving their blend profile without trading between other whisky makers. It is quite common for a single Japanese distillery to produce a wide range of styles, from the smokey and peaty style of Islay, through the heavily sherried, to the lighter and more delicate floral notes of Speyside.