One Man’s Introduction To Japanese Whisky

“Whisky goes with everything.” It’s a big call for a chef, especially as he’s shaving black truffle over a buttery slice of toro tuna, topped with a dollop of sweet, creamy, delicate sea urchin.

It’s a dish 29 year old executive chef Chase Kojima, of Sydney’s Sokyo, has created to complement his favourite whisky – a rich, spicy, smokey offering from a relative newcomer on the Japanese whisky scene.

After 14 years in barrel – 12 of them in Spanish brandy barrels, and the remainder in French wine and finally sherry – the White Oak Akashi 14 Year Old is a thing of remarkable depth and complexity. It’s also impossibly rare –  650 bottles were produced, with only 60 of them making it into Australia. Bottle number 351 sits on the top shelf at Sokyo – get in quick.

At first blush, sushi and single malt seems like a perfect way to ruin both, but in the hands of someone who respects his ingredients and his whisky, it’s nothing short of a revelation.

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D’Marge took a seat at Sokyo’s sleek and expansive bar, and in the capable hands of bartender and whisky ninja Simon Audas (look for a drawing of him in the menu), we took some time to sample the distilled essence of a country for whom detail and quality are national obsessions.

That Japanese whisky is enjoying something of a moment in a rising sun is an understatement. It is consistently challenging the long reigning Scottish kings of single malt with whiskies of immense nuance and meticulous precision.

A tale of two houses

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For a nation of such committed whisky makers and drinkers – Japan is the world’s third largest producer behind Scotland and the US – only around ten distilleries currently operate in the country. The industry itself is less than a century old, and owes its existence to two men: Masataka Taketsuru and his original employer, Shinjiro Torii.

Torii, who started Suntory and founded Japan’s first distillery in 1923 in Yamazaki, is best described as the man who sought to give Japanese whisky its own identity.

Suntory’s staple and most well known whisky, the Hibiki 12 Year Old, is an exquisitely smooth blend of a number of Suntory’s malts and a grain whisky to meld everything together. A perfectly balanced whisky built for the Japanese palate (and a favourite cocktail base of bartenders).

For something special, track down Suntory’s Hakushu 12 Year Old Single Malt. A simply brilliant dram, produced in the mountains west of Tokyo (using water prized by Japanese tea-ceremony masters for centuries from the Kyoto suburb of Yamazaki) the Hakushu is Japanese to the core – perfectly balanced with a meticulous clarity and purity. A must have on any committed whisky drinker’s shelf.

For love of country

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Torii’s apprentice Masataka Taketsuru, who would found the other giant of Japanese distilling Nikka, sought to embody in his whiskies the austerity and traditions of Scotland, a land which gave him both his education (he was the first Japanese person to study whisky scientifically) and his wife.

On their return to Japan the newly married Mr and Mrs Taketsuru established a still on Hokkaido island, in Japan’s far-north, seeking to replicate the conditions and traditions of the finest Scotch.

Nikka’s Yoichi 15 year old single malt is an embodiment of this vision. An austere and rigorous drop, with a flinty peat characteristic which arrives seemingly from nowhere and evolves into a long, salty, spicy finish. Such is the pursuit of purity in its production, the Yoichi stills are still coal fired; a technique barely practiced in even the oldest of the Scottish stills.

Taketsuru also found the pure air and high humidity of the Scottish highlands on the eastern coast on the main island of Honshu, where he established his Miyagikyo still. The Miyagikyo 12 Year Old Single Malt uses steam to heat the stills instead of coal and is finished in Bourbon barrels, giving it a lighter, more floral nose, with dried fruits and a nutty Sherry finish. Hard to find but worth seeking out.

Turning Japanese

How we dine and what we drink when we do it are increasingly changing across the country – from cocktail degustations or paired sakes in place of wine. The increasing availability of Japanese whiskies offers another option to breakaway from the traditional G&T-white-red-sticky-Scotch-coffee dinner drinking routine.

So find a comfy seat in front of a bartender who knows their stuff and prepare to be blown away and surprised by the diversity and world-beating quality of what Japan’s fanatically obsessed whisky makers have to offer.

Kampai!

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