To start, I use the term “whisky” (without the “e”) because we’ll be discussing Scotch-like or Scotch-style whisky first – in other words, single malts that are produced in a traditional style with a sharp introduction and a gentle, lingering finish. However, there are blended whiskies that achieve similar results, and we’ll discuss two of those as well.
Recently, I was with my dear friends Jana and Liz at one of my favourite hangouts, Brandy Library in New York. I suggested we taste a series of Japanese whiskies, which was a type of spirit they had not tasted before. In recent years, Japanese whiskies have gained popularity and many whisky critics now consistently rank Japanese single malts as superior to those from Scotland.
But how did my obsession with Japanese whisky begin? My friend Christina and I would have a standing date at our favourite bar in London, the Hawksmoor near Seven Dials. We would often congregate there early in the evening and would try half a dozen whiskies in the course of an evening, making notes and learning which houses and specific creations were our favorites. This article is meant to give you a head start on that process.
However, if you want to begin a journey on your own, I highly recommend hiring the attention of a knowledgeable barman and tasting a series of Asian whiskies in a flight so that you can compare them properly against each other – most well-stocked bars will do this, particularly on a quiet afternoon, and this is the best way to isolate what appeals to you. A typical flight is four to six whiskies that are similar in style but distinguishable even to the uninitiated, casual fan of the spirit in question. Budget $80 to $100 including tip for a typical tasting flight for one person if six fine whiskies are on offer.
Though Yamazaki gets an enormous amount of respect and press coverage – and deservedly so – I encourage you to try Nikka, a rival distillery with a range of options. For a whisky to drink with a single cube of ice on a lazy afternoon, their 12-year “Yoichi” is excellent. But, for a special occasion, the 21-year is divine. And it includes hints of vanilla and cinnamon that aren’t present, or at least aren’t as easily detected, in the younger vintage. Hence, the Nikka 21 wins my praise here and my recommendation that, if you taste only one Japanese whisky to convince you the Japanese are a peer, if not a superior offering, to the Scots, this should be the one. Aged in Madeira casks, the flavour is complex and muted, with no sharp edges. Expect to pay $375 for a 70cl bottle, 46% alcohol by volume.
The next recommendation is the Paul John single malt, which is possibly the best whisky yet from subcontinental Asia. Distilled in the humid lowlands of Goa in brick-and-mortar buildings, it shares many of its environmental characteristics with mid-century Scotches (Scotland experienced several unusually warm, albeit not tropical, years in the 1960’s and 1970’s). It is made using barley from the Himalayas and, unconventional for a Scotch-style whisky, is matured in barrels from eastern Kentucky, making it a truly global spirit. The “Brilliance” is the finest variant, with the “Edited” being nearly as good, and easier to find, for a few dollars less. Expect to pay $80 for the Brilliance and $70 for the Edited, both 70cl bottles, 46% alcohol by volume. Good on its own, but often paired with spicy small plates.
Akashi offers a range of whiskies but their best value is their blended White Oak. This is a mix of malt and grain whiskies, with the predominant flavour being a malt molasses sweetness familiar to fans of Tennessee mountain whiskies and bourbons in the Louisville style. The Eigashima Shuzo distillery is in an active region for spirits and also experiments with the production of rare spirits and liqueurs (the Japanese-market White Oak, almost impossible to find outside Japan, contains a small amount of molasses bar spirits to accentuate the sweet notes of its flavour). Expect to pay $60 for a 50cl short bottle of White Oak Export at 40% alcohol by volume, a pricepoint that competes directly with Nikka’s Nikka From The Barrel ($60 for 50cl, 51.4% alcohol by volume). Best paired with seafood.
Though Brown Drink Batch 6 is made in London, I’ve included it here as it’s exactly the kind of blend that was common in colonial Hong Kong or Bombay, where it was a standard practice (particularly at hotel bars and private clubs like the Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong) to take remnants of fine bottles and mix them at the end of the month before the next shipment from England arrived. Often, these bottles were upvintaged (misadvertised as having aged longer) or relabelled (typically as more expensive whisky). Batshit Mental Ideas in London takes this approach a step further, intentionally blending very fine Scotch whiskies, including a few that would be almost impossible to find on their own (for instance, Glenfarclas 40 Year Old and Bruichladdich Octomore Limited). This results in an exciting, impossible to untangle whisky that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Expect to pay around $50 for a 50cl bottle, 48% alcohol by volume.
Asian whisky is a maturing thing and worth examining seriously as its own genre of spirit. Whether you prefer drinkable blends or deep single malts, there is plenty of variety in the market and prices are comparable to other fine spirits. Next time you’re meeting someone for drinks in the afternoon, why not call ahead and ask if the restaurant has an Asian (likely Japanese) whisky on offer? Order one and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Karl Muth is a Lecturer in Economics and Public Policy at Northwestern University. His comments on a range of economic and policy issues have been featured in media from the Oprah Winfrey Show to TEDx (www.ted.com) to numerous academic journals. In his free time, Karl enjoys watching and reviewing films.