It took me a few seconds of ponderous staring at the bottle of Yamazaki 18 to realise what I was seeing – only half a bottle remained! With weary head spinning I attempted to dredge up the night before in my brain and I began to calculate. If half of this bottle was gone and if there had been three other bottles on the table that night, that must mean I had drunk…well…an awful lot.
The week prior to this bleary moment I had been kindly invited to try the range of Japanese whiskies from Suntory with brand ambassador Zoran Peric at Sake No Hana, a quirky ’60s staple of a Japanese restaurant located in London. We were joined by Eugene Bacot, the company’s PR representative, and the effervescent Zoe Griffin, long-time London celebrity columnist and blogger at Livelikeavip.com. We were to try the Yamazaki 12 and 18, along with Hakushu and Hibiki 17. Four people…four bottles. Luckily, I took notes!
This was a real treat indeed. I must confess that while I had been intrigued by Japanese whisky for a while and fell easily in love with Chichibu The First last year, I had not taken much time to really try a range at one sitting.
So, what did I learn about Japanese whisky?
The history dates back to the early 20th century when founder Shinjiro Torii built Japan’s first distillery after deciding to create domestic whisky for the local market. The first product was called Shirofuda, also known as White Label, but was too heavy for the Japanese palate and the distillery nearly failed, with Torii having to sell one of his breweries to keep the company afloat. In 1937, Suntory released Kakubin, which was a huge success that continues to this day, with 36 million bottles sold every year. The company continued on this path until Torii’s son built Hakashu distillery (the world’s highest distillery) in 1973.
The brand’s whisky leans heavily on Scottish tradition (even importing barley from Scotland for its single malts) but brings its own added twists that make it uniquely Japanese. Most importantly the company uses 12 pot stills at its distillery in six different shapes and sizes to create varying flavours in the new make spirit. It also heats them through steam, rather than fire, giving it a lighter characteristic, and makes some casks from Mizunara oaks, a rare type of oak that is at least 200-years old at harvesting.
After all this history it was time for some tasting. But I learned that in Japan one does not just drink whisky neat or on ice. In fact, they like to dilute it with three parts water to one part whisky in a style called mizuwari. And this is where things can get, well, dangerous. The Japanese style is to have food and whisky together, and to keep the open bottle of whisky on the table for constant mizuwari top ups. Which means you don’t notice those top ups so easily. At first, I thought this would ruin the flavour of the whisky, so I was very surprised to find that the flavours hold up extremely well, especially the Hakashu which was by far my favourite. It boasted scents of mulched grass and slight peat, but burst on the tongue with lychee, tropical fruit and vanilla notes. It worked beautifully with soft delectable pieces of sashimi and edamame. I also tried the mizuwari style with Yamazaki 12 but found it lost the flavour a bit and I much preferred it neat – it’s a sweet and sour dram hinting at maraschino cherries, lemons and grapefruit on the nose, with elements of brandied orange and oak on the palate. It paired perfectly with tempura prawns, the sweetness of the fish and saltiness of the batter marrying together in the mouth with the whisky. This was followed up by the Hibiki 17 – a 50% grain/50% malt whisky which is presented in a stunning, art-deco style bottle with 24 edged sides. It was delightful – slightly toasted and nutty, with a well rounded finish. The night was topped off with the very rich and complex Yamazaki 18 brimming with sherry, raisins and creamy coffee. I loved it so much, I took the rest home with me.
It was a great introduction to Japanese whisky and I highly recommend you give it a go if you want to see how they do it outside of the UK. Just be forewarned – it’s highly drinkable. So be sure you’re settled in somewhere cozy and warm for the night because after too many mizuwaris you’re not going to want to walk far in heels!