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Japanese whisky, the spirit of Christmas

IF JAPANESE whisky sounds like a joke &ndash; something akin to the Jamaican bobsleigh team, or Indian wine &ndash; then you clearly don&rsquo;t know very much about spirits. At last year&rsquo;s World Whisky Awards, Yoichi 20-year-old was voted the best whisky in the world, while Suntory&rsquo;s Hibiki was voted the best blended whisky. If you are looking for a Christmas gift for an adventurous whisky-lover, it could be ideal. <br /><br />Japanese whisky &ndash; which has been produced commercially since 1924 &ndash; is based on Scottish whisky, but the main difference is that it is matured in casks made from woods unknown to the Highlands and Islands, such as American or Japanese oak. These, with their light, fresh characteristics, give the whisky flavours in the so-called &ldquo;upper range&rdquo; &ndash; making it more like a vanilla-y bourbon than a peaty single malt &ndash; but still with Scotch&rsquo;s depth. <br /><br />The most common Japanese whiskies available in the UK are those made by Suntory, and its most popular brand is Yamazaki, whose 10, 12 and 18-year-old are the top-sellers. As a Scotch-lover, I was sceptical and thought that these would be pale imitations. They are not. <br /><br /><strong>BRILLIANT GOLD</strong><br />First up was the 10-year-old (40 per cent ABV, &pound;26.99), a brilliant gold in colour, with a nose of fresh green apples, vanilla and cinnamon. Aged in American oak casks, it was pleasantly floral and citrussy with a woody finish. As well as straight and with a splash of water, we also tried it as a mizuwari &ndash; heavy diluted with water. This is how many Japanese people drink their whisky, with food. Oddly, it works very well, and is not at all muddy, as for example a peaty single malt might be. <br /><br />Second was the Yamazaki 12-year-old (43 per cent ABV, &pound;34.99), matured in American and Japanese oak casks, with a nose of candied orange peel, honey, cloves and wood, and tastes of marmalade, pineapple and sweet apricots. We then moved on to the 18-year-old (43 per cent ABV, &pound;60), a really astonishing drink matured in sherry wood and with a nose of maraschino cherries and tasting of ripe plums, raisins and toffee, almost like a dessert wine. It would really hit the spot after a plate of Christmas pud. Even more extraordinary was the 1990 sherry Butt (61 per cent ABV), which was so sticky, chocolatey and figgy that it almost didn&rsquo;t taste like a whisky at all. <br /><br />Some of these whiskies are very different from Scotch, but for a spirits-drinker, they open up a new dimension. Whatever they are, they&rsquo;re no joke. <br /><br />Yamazaki 10, 12 and 18-year-old available at selected branches of Waitrose and Tesco, Oddbins, Fortnum &amp; Mason, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols.