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5 Rules You Should Know for Drinking Japanese Whisky

Suntory’s Hakushu distillery

Japanese whisky has gone from a little-known niche category reserved for hard-core whiskey geeks to one of the most highly sought-after spirit types of any variety. Serious misconceptions still remain, though, and for those who haven’t dabbled in Japanese whisky, it may seem intimidating to get started. Worry not—just follow these five rules, and you’ll be all set.

1. Don’t Freak Out About What You Can’t Get

Yes, Japanese whisky is in the midst of a huge supply pinch. And yes, age labels have been removed, and many previous favorites are either impossible to find or impossible to afford. But new products have been released to replace those that are no longer with us, and the category as a whole is enjoying increasing diversity, including from the big boys at Suntory and Nikka, as well as the increasing presence of smaller brands, such as Chichibu and White Oak.

Nikka’s Yoichi distillery.

It’s also important to realize why there’s a supply shortage and that it’s simply going to take time to resolve. The issue actually stretches back three decades to the early 1980s. “In 1984, whisky taxation increased,” says Mike Miyamoto, the global ambassador for Suntory. Japanese whisky began crashing, and even today, sales are nowhere near what they had once been. After the tax increase, shochu grew in popularity domestically, along with wine, beer and other spirits. Sales didn’t bottom out until 2008, and then suddenly, Japanese whisky became the hot new thing for whisky drinkers across the globe.

To many, it appeared as if Japanese whisky were new on the scene. “But we’re newcomers with 90-something years of experience,” says Miyamoto. Awards and international recognition quickly began mounting up. Meanwhile, domestic interest surged as well, thanks in part to, among other things, a fictionalized Japanese television drama called Massan, based on the life of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka.

Nikka whisky pot stills at the Yoichi distillery.

After decades of decline, Japanese whisky was in demand everywhere, all at once. And there was no way to be fully prepared. “We can’t release enough right now, because we didn’t make enough 10 years ago,” says Miyamoto. “It’s very simple.”

More whisky is on the way, but the category’s growth domestically and internationally after an extended period of stagnation depleted whisky warehouses. So chill out, there’s plenty of Japanese whisky out there to be savored, and there’s more being patiently aged and awaiting its turn for the years ahead.

Nikka whisky production at the Yoichi distillery.

2. There’s More than One Style of Japanese Whisky

Japanese whisky tends to be shoehorned into a single, homogenous flavor profile, but that’s simply not the case. “There isn’t a Japanese whisky the same way there isn’t a bourbon or a scotch,” says Nikka’s Naoki Tomoyoshi. “There are so many different Scotch whiskies out there. It’s the same with Japanese whisky. Every company has its own house style, and every product is very different from the other.”

For example, each of the five Nikka whiskies currently available in the U.S. are distinctive from each other. “The five products all fit within Nikka’s house style but are very different from each other at the same time,” says Tomoyoshi. “There isn’t a single Nikka product that will show you the flavors of Nikka; there’s a wide variety just within Nikka. So there must be more variety within the whole Japanese category.”

Suntory whisky barrels at the Yamazaki distillery.

There’s Nikka Coffey Grain, a predominantly corn whisky distilled on a continuous Coffey still, and there’s Nikka Coffey Malt, a 100 percent malted barley whisky that’s a single malt by ingredient definition but a grain whisky via production methodology, as it’s not pot-distilled. Nikka also has single malts from both of its distilleries, Yoichi and Miyagikyo, as well as Taketsuru Pure Malt, a blend of its malts.

The same diversity can be seen within Suntory’s portfolio. “We need so many different styles of flavors,” says Miyamoto. Each of Suntory’s two malt distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu, are capable of producing dozens of different single malts that are then blended together. The result is the richer sherry-influenced profile of Yamazaki single malts; the green fruits and light smoke of Hakushu single malts; the creamy profile of Chita, a grain whisky; and the floral, delicate notes of the blended Hibiki line, which also makes important usage of mizunara oak as a defining flavor characteristic.

Suntory whisky pot stills at the Yamazaki distillery.

3. Japanese Whisky Goes Great with Food

Pairing spirits with food is a challenge, but Japanese whisky actually pairs remarkably well with Japanese cuisine, especially in an expert’s hand. Miyamoto has been hosting pairing dinners for more than a decade, for instance, and he has developed a true master’s touch.

For him, the key is to marry the drink and food by finding common characteristics. “I try to find that similar component,” says Miyamoto. Therefore, he opts for a whisky such as Yamazaki 12-year-old on the rocks to go with sushi and sashimi, as the bold complexity of the whisky goes well with strong fermented, fishy and salty flavors.

Tastings of Suntory’s White Oak, Mizunara Cask Malt and Hibiki Japanese Harmony whiskies, from left, at the Yamazaki distillery.

Meanwhile, the earthy flavors of tempura are a natural fit for the “mountain smokiness” of Hakushu. He even paired a hot Hibiki tea cocktail with miso soup. “Only Hibiki can pull off this trick,” says Miyamoto, crediting its blended, rounded flavor profile. That’s not to say that Japanese whisky must be enjoyed with food, just that it can be, and that when it does, it doesn’t have to be in the form of a Highball.

4. Drink Your Japanese Whisky in Whatever Form You Want

There seems to be a misconception that Japanese whisky can only be consumed in one of two ways—neat or as a Highball. While both are acceptable choices, there’s no reason to avoid enjoying the right Japanese whisky on the rocks or in any type of applicable cocktail.

Suntory whisky barrels at the Hakushu distillery.

“It’s true that in Japan the most common way of consuming whisky by volume is in Highballs, but this does not mean that our whiskies in Japan are meant for Highballs,” says Tomoyoshi. “I believe it’s just the form that’s seen most often, thus giving the impression that this is the only way it’s consumed in Japan.”

Tomoyoshi describes a full list of ways to put the stuff to use. “We believe drinking neat is just one way of enjoying whisky in general, not just Japanese whiskies,” he says. “There are Japanese consumers that drink neat, on the rocks, twice up (equal parts whisky and water), mizuwari (whisky and water at a ratio similar to a non-carbonated Highball), Highballs and, of course, cocktails.”

The Highball Mizuwari, left, and Nail in the Coffin. Tim Nusog

Craft cocktails aren’t off-limits either. Simply look to two of Tokyo’s finest cocktail institutions, Bar BenFiddich and Gen Yamamoto, where Japanese whisky is routinely showcased in creative ways. At Yamamoto, it may be a hot Yamazaki cocktail with naoshichi citrus and Japanese sour plum. At Bar BenFiddich, it may be Nikka Coffey Grain with crème de cacao, Lillet aperitif and house-made floral coffee water, or Hakushu in a revamped Whisky Sour with fresh sage.

5. Stop Calling It Japanese Scotch

“Japanese scotch”—did you just shudder? There a few things wrong with that phrase. For one thing, scotch has to be made in Scotland. For another, while the production of whisky in Japan was heavily influenced by production of whisky in Scotland, it’s its own beast entirely.

The Maneki-tini, left, and Tokyo Sidecar.

“It’s important to help people understand the true culture of Japanese whisky,” says Miyamoto. Just because there are single malts and copper pot stills doesn’t make it scotch, and just because techniques were imported from and learned in Scotland doesn’t mean they then remained unchanged. Rather, Japanese whisky production has long been carefully adjusted and honed to match Japanese tastes, preferences and culture.

So go out there and enjoy some Japanese whisky. Don’t fret over disappearing age statements when replacements from recent years are readily available, from Hibiki Japanese Harmony and Suntory Toki to Nikka Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt. Put your favorite Japanese whisky in a cocktail, pair it with some food, appreciate the full range of styles to be savored, and eagerly anticipate what’s to come in the future. Just please don’t call it Japanese scotch when you do.