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How Japanese Single Malts Surpassed Scotland’s Finest

By Elin McCoy
March 19, 2014 5:00 PM EDT 45 Comments
The Japanese are beating the Scots at their own game. Photograph: Tom Schierlitz/Bloomberg Pursuits
The Japanese are beating the Scots at their own game. Photograph: Tom Schierlitz/Bloomberg Pursuits

My first sip of a great Japanese single-malt whisky was back in 2004, when the 18-year-old Yamazaki was first introduced into the U.S. I found its suave smoothness and elegance as sleek as a new Lexus. It had the familiar spicy, caramel-and-honey notes of a luxury single malt from Scotland but with its own exotic appeal from partial aging in Japanese mizunara oak.

Since then, Japan has been quietly scooping up gold medals at world whisky competitions, and in 2012, the 25-year-old Yamazaki beat out 300 of the world’s single malts in an international blind tasting. Now, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Spring 2014 issue, Japanese whisky seems to have reached a tipping point. Half a dozen additional brands have entered the U.S.; an all-Japanese-whisky bar, Mizuwari, has opened in London; and prices of rare bottles have skyrocketed at recent Hong Kong auctions.

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The quest to make world-class whisky in Japan began in 1918, when chemist Masataka Taketsuru journeyed to Scotland to pry out the country’s whisky-making secrets. Upon his return, businessman Shinjiro Torii, founder of what would become beverage giant Suntory Holdings Ltd., hired him to set up Japan’s first serious whisky distillery in Shimamoto. (Suntory announced a deal to purchase Beam Inc., maker of Jim Beam bourbon, in January.)

Ten years later, Taketsuru left for a site in snowy, remote Hokkaido prefecture that more closely resembled the terroir of the Scottish Highlands. He built the Yoichi distillery and founded rival whisky empire Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.

Global Recognition

Global recognition and appreciation of Japanese whiskies didn’t come until the 21st century. Many people first learned the country was making whisky from the 2003 Sofia Coppola film “Lost in Translation.” The plot revolves around an aging American actor, played by Bill Murray, who’s been hired by Suntory to star in a TV commercial. In one very funny scene, which showcases Suntory’s crisp Hibiki 17-year-old blend, the commercial’s histrionic director exhorts Murray’s character to look into the camera with “Masterpiece Theatre"–like intensity and declare, ‘‘It’s Suntory time.’’

Considering there are only seven active single-malt distilleries in Japan, the variety of styles is startling. All share a basic DNA with traditional Scotch: Japanese whisky also starts with malted barley imported from Scotland, because it’s the best and the cheapest.

And yet there are differences. The Japanese don’t acquire whiskies from other distilleries to make their distinctive blends, the way the Scots do. Instead, each distillery creates its many in-house variations using an array of copper pot stills and wooden barrels.

Coal Fires

The resulting whiskies are more floral, with softer, silkier textures, than those from Scotland. At Nikka’s Yoichi distillery, the pot stills are heated by coal fires, as opposed to steam, which gives their single malts richer, peatier flavors.

And the Yamazaki distillery’s use of virgin mizunara barrels contributes aromas of temple incense and sandalwood. Climate and landscape are also key flavor influencers. Whiskies produced at higher elevations, such as those at Suntory’s Hakushu distillery in the southern Japanese Alps, are notably clean and crisp, as are those from the Fuji-Gotemba distillery, which uses snowmelt from Mt. Fuji.

Single-Cask Bottles

Part of the growing interest in Japanese whisky, says David Driscoll, a spirits buyer for California’s K&L Wine Merchants, is that ‘‘people crave the new, the unique and the unobtainable.” Among the most-prized collectibles are single-cask bottles from Japan’s storied, now-closed distilleries.

For instance, U.K.-based Number One Drinks Co. obtained the distribution rights to the remaining 364 casks of Karuizawa. The legendary 1967, with notes of tobacco, sherry, dark chocolate and roasted coffee beans, originally sold in 2009 for $380 but now costs 10 times that, while the 1968 sold at a Bonhams auction in Hong Kong for almost $6,000, far above the high estimate.

Equally rare are Ichiro’s Malt Card whiskies from the shuttered Hanyu distillery, with labels that look like playing cards; a set of 13 brought $12,642 at Bonhams’s November Hong Kong sale.

Japanese whiskies aren’t just Scotch made in Japan. They embody a different, especially delicate aesthetic, based on harmony and precision. They’re more subtle Zen garden than sturdy Scottish kilt. The top bottles aren’t easy to find, even in Japan, but they’re worth the search.

Top Bottles

Hakushu 12-year-old single malt This fresh, lightly smoky whisky from Suntory’s forest distillery— inside a bird sanctuary 2,200 feet (670 meters) up in the southern Japanese Alps—has notes of green apple and smoky autumn leaves. ($70)

Hibiki 21-year-old blended whisky This Suntory blend of more than 20 Yamazaki and Hakushu whiskies is perfumed, subtle and sweet, with just the right touch of tartness. ($300)

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 21-year-old This blended single malt, named for Nikka’s founder, is round and rich, with notes of exotic spices, dried fruit, leather and cocoa and a finish that goes on and on. ($170)

Yamazaki 25-year-old single malt Judged best Japanese single malt in Whisky Magazine’s 2013 World Whiskies Awards, Suntory’s flagship is bright, smooth, complex and perfectly balanced, with a delicate taste of honey, spiced peaches and coconut. ($1,600)

Yoichi 15-year-old single malt Bold, concentrated and sweet, this Nikka whisky has notes of nuts, tobacco, bitter chocolate and smoke. ($130)

Online Retailers

K&L Wine Merchants, Redwood City, California klwines.com La Maison du Whisky, Paris whisky.fr Fine Spirits by La Maison du Whisky, Singapore whisky.sg Master of Malt, Tunbridge Wells, England masterofmalt.com The Whisky Exchange, London thewhiskyexchange.com

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Elin Mccoy at elinmccoy@gmail.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ted Moncreiff at tmoncreiff@bloomberg.net Joel Weber, Jonathan Neumann

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