Nippon’s sublime amber nectar: Why is Japanese whisky gaining so many global plaudits?

 
Laura Millar
A view of Mt Fuji in cherry blossom season

Kampai!’ says my effusive barman, as I lift the highball glass to my lips. I’m in a narrow, low-lit, eight-seater bar called Hanare, just a few minutes’ walk from Gion-Shijo station, in the heart of Kyoto’s entertainment district, and about to try my first taste of Japanese whisky. It’s an apposite time to do so, as last November, the Japanese beat the Scots in the whisky stakes for the very first time. The Sherry Cask single malt 2013, produced in Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery, came top in the 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, winning World Whisky of the Year. And as this distillery is located close to the tourist and temple towns of Osaka and Kyoto, you can combine a visit to this sacred producer of spirits with a sophisticated swagger around these cities’ finest whisky bars.

Full disclosure: I’m half Scottish, born and bred in Edinburgh, to a father who is a Scotch aficionado. Thanks to him, I have sipped and sampled many a fine dram over the years. I’ve learned to recognise the different notes; caramel, smoke, heather. I even spent a school project one summer hewing large chunks of peat from a sodden patch of earth in Orkney, to be transported to the local distillery, Highland Park (sadly I was too young to reap the fruits of my labours; I look back on it as unpaid child labour). So how would Japanese whisky measure up?


A still at the Yamazaki distillery

The Japanese prefer to drink theirs mixed with soda, in tall glasses, known as haiboru. I discover this during a tour of the Yamazaki distillery the afternoon before my bar crawl. “Generally, we don’t drink our whisky neat,” says Sasaki Taichi, a genial, 6ft Osakan who is the plant’s whisky specialist. “Our tongue prefers picking up the flavours of the whisky dispersed in the water, rather than tasting the pure alcohol.”
The origins of Japanese whisky began in the 1920s, in the tiny town of Yamazaki, a 25-minute train journey from Osaka (itself only 15 minutes away from Kyoto). Wine importer Shinjiro Torii started a distillery there in order to produce his own brand of port. However, his ultimate goal was to create a whisky that was similar to Scotch, but which suited his countrymen’s tastebuds. He hired a Japanese distiller, Masataka Taketsuru, who had learned his trade in Scotland, to oversee production (Taketsuru would eventually leave to start his own distillery, Nikka, whose products even today rival Suntory’s). After much trial and error, a successful version was launched in 1937; having matured for 12 years, it had a mild, rounded taste, which went down well with local customers.


Hanare bar in Kyoto, where you can enjoy some classic Japanese whisky

The distillery itself is set back into an abundant bamboo forest at the base of a mountain. Torii chose the location because of its proximity to the tributaries of pure, spring water which contribute to the quality of its single malts and blends (similarly, spring water is used in the production of Scotch). Daily tours take in the areas where the barley is mashed and fermented, before being distilled to 70 per cent ABV and then barrelled to mature; and the long, cavernous stone rooms where several different types of wooden casks are stored (each subtly influencing the final flavour), with some maturing for up to 30 years – the eventual results will be used in the more aged blends.
For me, the proof, of course, will be in the drinking. Both Osaka and Kyoto have plentiful bars which either specialise in whisky, or stock dozens of different bottles – after negotiating your way through the futuristic fantasy playground of Dotonbori’s nightlife district, with its dazzling Times Square neon, try Osaka’s Bar Augusta, which displays a host of whisky memorabilia, from vintage cases to old labels. Or visit Kyoto’s Cordon Noir (Kiyamachi-dori Sanjo-sagaru, Ishiyacho 121 Matsushimaya Bldg 3F), which stocks an impressive 600+ whiskies, 40 of them Japanese.


Casks of ageing whisky

In Kyoto, once I’ve ticked off a temple or two (including Kiyomizu-Dera, one of the city’s most magnificent Buddhist examples, an elegant multi-storied, curved-roofed edifice), I head to the streets of Gion to soak up the atmosphere. Here, kimono-clad, white-faced, red-lipped women – some of whom are authentic geisha entertainers (known here as “geiko”), others of whom are just over-enthusiastic tourists – scurry around the narrow, paved streets, darting in and out of restaurants or teahouses.
My hotel’s concierge recommendsHanare, so I duck into its unassuming doorway. The barman suggests I try a Yamazaki 12 year old single malt (this bar only stocks six or so whiskies, including four from Suntory). Mixed with soda, it’s pale in colour, and light in flavour – crisp, and refreshing. There’s a hint of smokiness there, a whisper of Scottish highlands, balanced with a delicacy that evokes a touch of citrus. For contrast, he then offers me a Hakushu 12 year old single malt (from Suntory’s other distillery, situated in east Japan); matured in bourbon barrels, it has a heavier, peatier taste, more reminiscent of the Scottish whiskies I’m used to.


The Yamazaki distillery's founder Torii, and his son

All in all, I think they’ve cracked it; I’m clearly not the only one, as Japanese whisky is currently exported all over the world, with Suntory looking to double overseas shipments to 3.6m bottles by 2016. Move over, Macallan, and budge up, Bunnahabhain; there’s a new kid on the block. I drain my glass. “Kampai!” the barman says again, the Japanese word for cheers. “Slainte”, I smile.
Who drunk it?
France is the world’s biggest whisky consumer with 2.15 litres consumed per capita each year. Uruguay is second and the USA is third. Japan is 16th.

FAST FACTS

FLIGHTS
KLM flies to Osaka (closest airport to Kyoto) in Japan from 18 UK airports, via Amsterdam Schiphol. Return fares in February 2015 start from £715 including all taxes and fees. For more information and to book, visit klm.com
WHEN YOU ARRIVE
To get to the Yamazaki Suntory Distillery from Kyoto: take the JR Kyoto train from Kyoto station to Yamazaki, which takes around 15 minutes and costs 220 yen one way (approx. £1.18).
To reserve your place on a free guided distillery tour at the Yamazaki Suntory distillery, visit suntory.com/factory/yamazaki or contact +81 75 962 1423 (with at least one day’s notice).
Hyatt Regency Kyoto - Double rooms from 22,000 yen (£127), excluding breakfast. kyoto.regency.hyatt.com
Bar Hanare, Kyoto: Miyagawasuji 3-282, tel: +81 75-525-5588.
Bar Augusta, Osaka: Umeda, Arakawa Building 1F, 2-3, Tsurunocho, Kita-Ku; tel: +81 66-376-3455.

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