Not since Billy Murray played an ageing Hollywood movie star in Lost in Translation has Japanese whisky attracted attention like it did last year when whisky doyen Jim Murray (no relation) rated the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the world’s best whisky. Murray gave the dram the equal highest ever score (97.5) and described it in his annual Whisky Bible as “near indescribable genius”.
The story of Japanese whisky begins in 1923 when Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii established the Yamazaki distillery on the periphery of the ancient capital of Kyoto. Torii chose this location as the region’s water is famed for its purity and softness, and because its climate is so different to that of Scotland. The cold winters and warm summers of Japan’s main island, Honshu, mean whiskies age differently compared to Scotland, which has a more consistent temperature year round. “Hot summers make for complex, deep aroma,” says Shinji Fukuyo, chief blender at Suntory.
Another reason for the superiority of Japanese whisky is the meticulous way the Japanese distillers go about their craft. At new Surry Hills bar Tokyo Bird, manager Jason Ang says, “Japanese are super precise with so many things they do. It’s the same with whisky … One distiller ate the same lunch every day for 30 years so that he would not affect his palate.”
Japanese whisky is proving popular across Sydney with a more bars and restaurants featuring bottles on their back bars. Ang believes that a reason for the drink’s growing popularity is that generally they are a lot smoother and more approachable that most Scotches, but are still packed with flavour and finish. People want to know more about what they are drinking, too, “people want to chat and know about different distilleries, blends and single malts,” says Ang. The current offering at Tokyo Bird is about 30, but more are arriving all the time.
While the pairing of Scotch with food is normally considered eccentric, the finesse, subtly and balance of Japanese whisky means it is more suited to pairing. At Chaco Bar on Crown Street in Darlinghurst, head chef and owner Keita Abe recommends Japanese whisky with a variety of different yakitori. “It works best with red meat, and goes particularly well with our wagyu and ox tongue.” According to Abe, in his hometown of Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu, and most of Japan, the existence of izakayas means that whisky is always drunk with food. “We don't have pubs, we drink at izakayas where food is always served,” he says.
Similar to Ang, Abe has also found people are becoming increasingly interested in Japanese whisky, particularly since the Sherry Cask won its award. “We are definitely selling more now … people are asking for it very regularly, but I still don’t think they are very familiar with it.”
If Scotch is not normally your thing, then the smoothness and cleanliness of the Japanese version may be just be the ticket. It has been claimed that while Scotch is masculine and powerful like a Maserati, Japanese whisky is more like a Lexus; beautifully crafted, smooth and always pleasing.
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