To start understanding Japanese whisky, it’s complexity, it’s layered palate and aromatics we will look in reverse. Instead of starting with history, regions and physiological makeup lets start with the glass. As we all love a great single malt whisky, we’ll talk specifically about Nikka Whisky 12 yr single malt “Miyagikyo”.
This reminds me of a delicate Speyside Scotch like the GlenRothes 1998 Select. The heather and honeyed tone and subtle Bourbon notes finish with lightly spiced cake. It feels light to medium in the mouth with a lingering finish that leave flavors of lavender and leather with the slight saltiness of sunflower seeds and smoked almond.
There should be no surprise that the comparison to Speyside is an easy one, the humidity and general climate are kindred. The fatter based pot stills with the longer necks and smaller condenser help to produces a soft and delicate dram. When Masataka Taketsuru set up the Miyagikyo distillery he had all of this in mind. The water source of the Nikkawa river, the grassy hills where the distillery now sits and the trail of oaks that lead to its doorsteps could easily be mistaken for a Scotch distillery. To be fair in drawing the coincidence, Masataka studied the art of distillation at the Longmorn distillery in the Speyside region of Scotland. This is in no way to take away from the distinct elegance of Japanese whisky, it is only to understand and quantify its birth. This is indeed where Masataka began his journey of bringing fine malt whisky to Japan, by learning the traditions of Scottish distillation while understanding his Japanese roots. There is an almost soft, sweet pear and apple aroma to most Asian malt whiskies that remind me of fine Cognac. I suppose there is a reason the French and Japanese always seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to gastronomy as they have a symbiotic identity.
There is true art in a pour of Nikka or Suntory or even Taiwan’s great Kavalan whisky. There is something that I identify as Asian complexity. With Japanese whiskies I find a soft and subtle power. Think of great sushi. It is not just in the delicate cut of the fish but in how the fragrant soft rice is packed. This subtly can be a foundation of strength where as the Taiwanese are making a spirit that is bolder and heartier to match some of the spicier, saltier cuisine.
In 1918 the young Masataka Taketsuru traveled to Scotland where he attended Glasgow University to study chemistry. There, coming from a family with centuries of sake brewing under their belt he decided to study the art of Scotch whisky. At that time in Japan there had been great commerce and friendship between Japan, the United States and Europe. There was trade of clothing, foods, spices and alcohol. The Japanese have long been making sake and a spirit called Shochu, a sake distillate. Right around the 1850’s give or take, drinks made of malted barley started to infiltrate Japanese bars and liquor cabinets. It was at this time that American brewers came to set up shop, this endeavor later became the Kirin Brewery. Even Scotland’s famous author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became an obsession with the Japanese. It naturally followed that the dram of his homeland became as well loved as golf on the Island nation of Japan. The missing component of producing fine whisky was the know-how. No matter what spice or herb they used they could not make a comparable whisky. It is even said that many Japanese whisky labels read “made with Scottish grapes.” At that time they had a long road ahead of them.
When Masataka was in Scotland he began to learn the art of blending whisky at the Hazelburn distillery in Campbelton. Later in Longmorn he learned the subtly of distillation and was the 1st person from Japan to do so in the UK. There he met his match. A young Scottish woman, the daughter of his host family who’s fiance had died in Damascus during WWI.
Masataka had given her a gift of perfume and she in return gave him a collection of Robert Burns’ poems. Coming from a traditional Japanese and Scottish family they had decided to elope as their marriage was not condoned by the family nor was their love even understood. Back in Japan Rita became an English teacher and Masataka went to work for with Shinjiro Torii.
In 1923 Masataka helped Shinjiro build the famous Yamazaki distillery which is still today Japan’s most famous and important whisky house.
By 1934 the need to build his own distillery became too much and on Japan’s northern island the Yoishi distillery was built and the Nikka brand was born. His Miyagikyo distillery which we have now tasted was not built until 1969 where he produces a grain spirit made in the famous Coffey still but his single malt shows his true mastery and interpretation that had begun on his Island almost a century before. It is no wonder he is considered the Father of Japanese whisky. Masataka passed unto the next world on August 29th, 1979 where he has undoubtedly been collecting and bottling all of his angels share ever since.
In 2005 the Taiwanese company, King Car, producer of foods, beverages and a leader in the biotech industry began building the Kavalan Distillery which means “People of the Plain”. The Kavalan people were the 1st inhabitants of the region just south east of T’aipei.
There, King Car found the perfect water source from a spring that fed snow melt from mount Yilan out to the Pacific ocean where the sea mist meets mountain air creating a perfect micro climate for aging a world class whisky.
In fact in several blind tasting panels with some of the best malt men and women in the industry, Kavalan consistently out shines many of its Old World Scottish forebears. Not that their whisky is a superior product. They are only taking the tradition of fine Scotch whisky by using the same stills, techniques and malts (most malted barley the Japanese and Taiwanese use are imported from Scotland) but have incorporated their individual water source which can dramatically change the flavor profile. They distill to their own abilities and taste. It is new and different. The Kavalan line showcases the elegant terrior and complexity of a fine Scottish malt whisky while holding a sweeter, creamier mouth feel that lovers of Bourbon can understand. It’s aromatics offers the sweet, custardy aromas of the deeper Highland with the subdued heathered tones. The buttery, vanilla quality of well seasoned Bourbon barrels with the broad spiced structure of old Sherry butts helps to bridge a gap between the subtle smoked and salty notes of Scotch and the wide brush stroke of a powerful Bourbon. This is always a great go to for the Pappy fan who does not quiet get the delicate dryness of Scotch yet. They are a very young distillery who are moving the malt industry forward with the use of old world machinery and new world ideology. This has become one of my favorite whiskies and one of the most exciting twists to a road often traveled but rarely deviated from.
In creating a cocktail with a complex spirit you have to keep the integrity of the spirit in mind. You don’t want to over shadow or over power the liquor whether it be whisky, rum or vodka for that matter. In working with Japanese whisky I want to showcase the delicate fruit notes and play off the spiced aromas from the sherry wood. I am using Hibiki 12 yr today, the blended whisky from Suntory which utilizes a corn based grain spirit and single malts from their Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries.
Wabi Sabi (aka balance in art and nature)
1 1/2 oz Hibiki
1/2 oz Lustau PX Sherry (This is to play off of the intrinsic sherry aromas from the whisky)
1/2 Dolin Vermouth Blanc (The vermouth blanc gives a hint of sweetness)
1/2 Dolin Dry Vermouth (This gives a subtle herbaceous buttery texture)
2 dashes Fee Brothers oak aged gin orange bitters (This particular bitter adds an herbal note that is usually offered by a sweet vermouth rouge)
stir and strain into a cocktail glass
spritz with orange oil and garnish with a cinnamon stick
My 1st experience with Asian whisky some 3 years ago changed my out look on whisky in general. It is not just the history of a region that gives rise and rights to produce something profound and beautiful. It is the acknowledgment of a collective history, our place in it and how we are as much a shaping force as those who have come before us. We learn from them and have something to teach them as well. The joy and intensity of enthusiasm with dedication and understanding your place in the world allows us to not be held by the preconceived idea of who we are but what we can give. Thank you Masataka for understanding this human gift.