We tend to think that the whisky world widened as Scots and Irish men settled the New World with their stills in tow and made new quaffs from the available grains. While accurate, that chain of thought ignores another whole region of newer spirits from an even older world that is very much worth exploring: Japanese whisky.
The country has a venerable 90-year history for making whisky as local entrepreneurs decided to slake the country's taste for Scotch whisky with something of their own. Now the whisky is coming into its own as single malts and superior blends from the Land of the Rising Sun become more available in the United States.
It was 1923, when Shinjiro Torii built Yamazaki, the first whisky distillery in Japan, with the help of Masataka Taketsuru, who had studied distilling at the University of Glasgow. They would part company with the former founding Suntory and the latter Nikka. Now eight distilleries span the country, making in great part whisky for blends, but not without single malt distribution. The Yamazaki 12-year-old is full of meaty fruits with light peat. Its 1984 vintage, having been aged in casks made of local oak-mizunara-has the spiciness of ginger and incense. Another Suntory distillery, Hakushu, set in the chilly confines of what is known as the Japanese Alps, brings us a 12-year-old that speaks of ginger, pine, bamboo, mint and even plums.
Nikka operates the northernmost of the country's distilleries, Yoichi, on the island of Hokkaido, which Taketsuru sought out for its amenable water supplies. Its 15-year-old entry to the U.S. market is full of pears, chocolate, Sherry and spice, with a whiff of smoke. The company also honors its founder with a marriage of malts called Taketsuru Pure Malt 12-year-old. It weds Yoichi malt with that of Miyagikyo distillery, which is located in the northeast of Honshu and surrounded with rivers and mountains. It is rich with pears and other meaty fruits as well as caramel and a slight hint of banana.
Suntory also imports one of our favorite blends—from any region of whisky—Hibiki 12-year-old. It includes malts from Yamazaki and Hakushu as well as grain whisky. Some of the malt is extra aged in Umeshu casks, formerly used to age plum liqueur. The effect is hard candy with a cupboard full of spices—ginger, cinnamon, basil, tarragon, slight pepper and licorice—that should change any prejudice you have for blends or for that matter Japanese whisky.