It's a bit unfortunate, but for most of the past decade, Japanese whisky has been inextricably linked to the 2003 film "Lost in Translation." You surely remember when Bill Murray's character the sad-sack, washed-up actor shilling in a cheesy commercial declares, "For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."
Back then, most Americans probably didn't realize that Suntory is a real distillery, Japan's oldest. (In fact, in the 1990s, Sean Connery appeared in the real ads.) Even those single-malt Scotch or bourbon snobs who might have heard of Suntory scoff at the very notion: "Whisky from Japan? Ha-ha! Is that like fine wine from New Jersey?!"
Well, let me say this: People who tell you that Japanese whisky is an inferior imitation of Scotch or bourbon have never tasted it. They don't realize what they're missing, which is some of the most unique whisky in the world. (And, yes, as with Scotch and Canadian whisky, there's no "e" when we talk about the stuff from Japan.)
I, too, once looked down upon a dram from Japan. But this winter, deep into whisky season, I've had a change of heart.
It started when a friend who travels to Japan on business introduced me to Yoichi Single Malt, from the legendary Nikka distillery, a spirit that is nearly impossible to find in the United States. I've moved on to Suntory products, which are more widely available, specifically the Yamazaki 12-year-old ($40), the Hakushu 12-year-old ($60) and the Hibiki 12-year-old ($55).
I'm still in a committed relationship with bourbon, but I've begun a lustful dalliance with Japanese whisky. She is everything that bourbon, Scotch and rye are not: lower in strength, with more finesse, subtlety and softness; and strangely alluring, with fresh notes of forest and nuts and flowers and exotic flavors of fruit and spice. There is not one style of Japanese whisky, but there is a common . . . well, for lack of a better term, an oddness or foreign-ness that's hard to translate.
Japanese whisky is produced very much like Scotch: pot-stilled from peated barley malt. When Suntory made its first whiskys in 1923, Scotland was certainly the model, but the quest was for something distinctly Japanese. "We wanted to make a whisky for Japanese people and the Japanese palate," said Yoshi Morita, manager of sales and marketing for Suntory International, in a telephone interview.
What exactly does that mean, I asked. "Think about Japanese food," Morita said. "It's very delicate and complex. Japanese whisky is meant to be fresh and supple to the palate. There's not such a strong taste."
How many whisky drinkers or distillers in the West think about the spirit's relationship to food? Relatively few, I'd say. "The difference between Japanese whisky drinkers and U.S. or Scottish drinkers is that the Japanese drink whisky with their meal," Morita said. "All Japanese food goes with Japanese whisky."
Some macho single-malt snobs who love their peat monsters might call these "feminine," and partly that is because most are bottled at around 86 proof, significantly lower than the cask-strength whiskeys that enthusiasts covet. But for me, the flavor is there, even at the lower proof. There are only five whisky distilleries in Japan, as opposed to more than 80 in Scotland, and so the blending is also somewhat different. With a Scotch such as Dewar's or Johnnie Walker, different malts from different distilleries are blended into one product, which must be called blended whisky.
In Japan, however, the "blends" are likely to come from the same distillery. Technically, these are single-malts, but what differs is the mix of wood. Some of the whisky is aged in American white oak barrels, some in sherry casks and some in barrels made of rare Japanese oak, which grows on the northern island of Hokkaido. The Japanese also experiment with lengthened fermentation and sometimes filter through charred bamboo.
The key difference between buttery Yamazaki with its honey, clove and spiced-peach flavors and the green and fresh Hakushu with its crisp mint, ginger and smoking-autumn-leaf notes is simply the terroir where each distillery is situated. For the Hibiki, which is a blend from Yamazaki and Hakushu, some of the whisky spends time in barrels that once stored plum liqueur. The result is a unique experience of spice and smoke and tropical fruit, and a delicate, delicious sweetness balanced by a hint of tartness.
That distinctiveness might be why Japanese whisky is finding a market in the United States; Morita said Yamazaki sales grew by 40 percent this past year. "U.S. consumers are very open-minded, and they're looking for something new," he said.
Morita actually seemed relieved that Suntory's role in "Lost in Translation" is becoming less a part of his everyday sales conversation. "At the time, the movie was very helpful to Suntory, because Americans recognized the name," he said. "But now, more people want to talk about Japanese whisky because they like the quality.