As we begin to “discover” Japanese whisky, we immediately thirst for more, seeking out new brands and older expressions. We’re the Captain Kirks of whisky drinkers, venturing into darkness. While the range of offerings in North America is small compared with other whisky categories, remember it wasn’t long ago that the Irish whisky selections behind most bars were limited to the basics. More expressions and rare bottlings of Japanese whisky are expected to arrive this year and in the near future. In the meantime, here are three whiskies you absolutely ought to keep an eye out for.
Hakushu 12-Year ($65)
This single malt launched in the U.S. in 2011, and whisky geeks who’d visited Japan were happy for its arrival on our shores, and were overjoyed to brag they’d tasted it first in Tokyo or Chiba City. It’s made by Suntory (who also produce Yamazaki single malt and Hibiki blended whisky) at what’s claimed to be the highest-elevated distillery in Japan. Fresh mountain water, dense forests and Japanese oak ageing lend distinctive spice notes to the whisky. Lightly peated and light amber in colour, Hakashu may remind you of lighter Islay expressions, like Caol Ila 12-year. On the nose, you’ll get notes of smoke, vanilla, crisp apple and pear fruit. On the mouth, a sweet opening of candied citrus and roasted grain, with a long, lingering sweet smoke finish. If the 12-year whets your whistle for Japanese peated whiskies, you’ll be pleased to know the higher-proofed (48% ABV) Hakashu Heavily Peated expression is scheduled to debut in the U.S. this fall.
Taketsuru Pure Malt 12-Year ($70)
From the Nikka Whisky Company, and new to the U.S., this is a blend of malt whiskies from Nikka’s two distilleries (Japanese whisky companies blend within their own properties, holding proprietary recipes and techniques close to their vests). Yoichi Distillery, built in 1934, produces classic, lightly peated Highland style whiskies, with notes of spice, caramel and dark chocolates with a hint of smoke. Whisky from Miyagikyo, Nikka’s newest distillery in the mountains of Sendai, Honshu, offers up ripe fruit notes, and a lightly sweet palate with a silky mouthfeel. The pure malt blend (not a blended whisky, because there is no non-malted distillate involved) is a highly approachable, easy drinking spirit designed to introduce the novitiate to Japanese whiskies. Though it’s only recently appeared on store shelves here, the International Spirits Challenge awarded it a gold medal in 2008, and it received Best Japanese Single Malt Whisky honours at the 2007 World Whiskies Awards. When you’re ready for the next step up from Nikka, look for Yoichi Single Malt 15-Year ($130), also new to the U.S.
Yamazaki 25-Year (about $1,300)
If there’s any Japanese whisky on the bar, it’s likely Suntory’s Yamazaki 12-year. Like Taketsuru, the 12-year is clean, approachable and easy drinking. A more dedicated bar will pour the 18-year. But come this October, the 25-year expression, new to the U.S., will be the holy grail of spirits from the Land of the Rising Sun. Suntory provided a taste of this sherry-finished, deep amber nectar to journalists last winter. It’s rich with aromatics of raisin, rosemary, candied strawberry and apple, and ripe tomato aspic. On the mouth, the extra time spent in wood give classic rich notes of unsweetened chocolate, fresh earth, hazelnut and a just the slightest sweetness in its long dried apricot finish. Since a bottle will set you back more than a grand, either start saving now, or plan on swinging by your favourite whisky bar for a wee dram.