Until relatively recently in the United States, Japanese whisky was something of an insider’s secret. But no longer: recent high-profile headlines, such as the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 winning the title of World’s Best Whiskey in 2015, have brought a spotlight to the category—and have some producers scrambling to keep up with intensifying demand.
Japan has produced whisky for almost a century. Suntory’s founder Shinjiro Torii began building the Yamazaki dis- tillery outside of Kyoto in 1923 after studying the production methods of Scotch whisky. The Yoichi distillery, now owned by Nikka, opened in 1934.
While other brown spirits may come with a laundry list of production and aging requirements, there’s only one rule about how to make Japanese whisky: that it be made in Japan. Unlike in Scotland, where distilleries tend to craft a house style, Japanese distilleries make their own blends from whiskies aged in different types of wood (Mizunara, a local Japanese oak, is popular) or made in different stills (Coffey stills, compared to the more conventional continuous still, for example). More controversially, some producers are making whisky from rice, compared to the more traditional grains of barley, wheat, rye, or corn.
What this means, according to whisky expert Lee Anne Wong, chef and owner of Honolulu’s Koko Head Café, is that “Japanese whisky has a wide range of nuances and flavors, ranging from smoky, leathery and peaty, to sweeter notes of vanilla, spice, caramel and toffee.” If there is one constant, Wong says what sets Japanese whisky apart is the texture, which she describes as “smooth, silky, ultimately drinkable with or without ice.”