Japan is the world’s second-largest producer of single malt whisky (after Scotland), and their products have been garnering more and more attention on the international stage. Yamazaki won the title of World’s Best Single Malt Whisky in the 2011 awards given by England’s Whisky Magazine; Yamazaki and Hibiki won Best Single Malt and Best Blended Whisky, respectively, the year before that; Hibiki took the crown for Best Blended in 2010, and Yoichi and Hibiki swept in 2008.
Japan whisky production probably would never have begun at all were it not for Shinjiro Torii. A former pharmaceutical salesman, Torii founded a company called Kotobukiya, later known as Suntory. In 1924, against the advice of all his investors, he opened the country’s first commercial distillery—Yamazaki, on the outskirts of Kyoto. From the beginning, he took Scotland as his model. He located Yamazaki near a source of pure spring water located at the foot of Mt. Tenno, and he hired Masataka Taketsuru, trained in the Scottish highlands, as his first distiller. Taketsuru went on to establish Yoichi ten years later.
The two men had a long road. Aside from the problems created by the Depression and the Second World War, many connoisseurs believed that Scotch was the beginning and end of single malt whisky. There are actually many similarities between Scotland and Japan in terms of topography and climate. Both countries have a culture of drinking whisky with food. In the beginning, Japanese whisky was primarily consumed in the domestic market, until it began winning acclaim in international competitions in 2001.
I recently received samples of Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu. All three were 12 Year-Olds, all were made by Suntory, and all three contained 43% alcohol. The Yamazaki and Haskushu were single malts, while the Hibiki was a blend.
The Yamazaki ($52) has a sweet, floral nose with touches of fermented lychee. It is rich yet nicely balanced in the mouth, with the sweetness and floral component giving way to pepper and spice in the mid palate, and the spice notes offsetting the opulent texture. Hakushu ($63) is unusual among Japanese malts in its use of peat; supposedly, the peated barley is directly imported from Scotland. It is lean and angular in the mouth, with a slightly oily texture; the peat comes through in the mid palate and continues on the finish, which is quite earthy. Water calms it down and mellows out the flavors.
The nose of the Hibiki ($65) is recessed and mellow, giving up aromas of autumn flowers with coaxing. It enters the mouth sweetly, with a ripe and unctuous texture giving way to cream and spice in the middle; the spice notes build on the finish, which is long and resonant. This is a very smooth and palatable style of whisky, which becomes rounder and richer with the addition of water.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to iconicspirits.net.