Ask the bartender: The sun rises on Japanese whisky

Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Squeaky Bean -- and here every week, where he'll answer your questions. This round, it's Japanese whisky -- without the "e."

Q. I've read your posts about scotch and bourbon , and thoroughly enjoyed them. So I decided to visit your bar last week and tasted some of each. While I was there, I noticed a bottle on the shelf with the scotches that had Asian lettering on the label. Was it a whiskey? If so, could you tell me what it was? Geoff

A: Good eye, Geoff. The whisky that you saw on the shelf at the Squeaky Bean was Yamazaki 12-year, an amazing Japanese whisky. Since I have yet to explore Japanese Whisky (like Scotch, no "e") on this blog, your question is the perfect excuse to do so...

The Japanese have been making grain spirits since the 1500s -- principally, a distilled rice spirit called shochu. The creation and development of Japanese whisky can be credited to two men, Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. In 1923, the visionary Torii, founder of Kotobukiya (now known as Suntory), producers of shochu, opened the Yamazaki Distillery in the hills between Kyoto and Osaka. The distillery was built specifically to produce a Scotch-style malt whisky. Torii hired Taketsuru to run Yamazaki.

Taketsuru, who came from a family of famed sake producers, had learned the craft of making whisky in Scotland, and he brought with him European methods and equipment. In 1934 Taketsuru left Suntory to start his own company, Dainipponkaju (now Nikka), and established the Yoichi distillery.

Like Scotch, Japanese whisky is made with 100 percent malted barley. Japan and Scotland are very similar in terroir, both being mountainous islands, and they both use natural water sources with high mineral content. As a result, Japanese whiskys are very similar to those of the Scottish Isle. Subtle differences do exist, though: Whisky producers in Japan use a lot of Japanese Mizunara oak, which can bring incense-like notes to the whisky. And the climate in Japan is warmer, so the whiskys age faster; therefore, a 12-year-old whisky can seem to be older. In my opinion, Yamazaki 18-year is one of the finest whiskys on the planet.

There are currently ten whisky distilleries in Japan: two owned by Suntory, two by Nikka, two by Kirin, two by Chichibu, as well as Hombo and Eigashima Shuzou. In Scotland, it is common for distillers to trade whisky for use in their blends. In Japan, where the business of whisky is more cutthroat, distilleries only trade blending stock with those of their own company, so it is common for a single distillery to make a few styles of whisky.

At one time, Japanese whiskys were considered to be secondary to Scotch. But recently, they have surged in respectability and popularity. In expert blind taste tests in Whisky Magazine, Yamazaki and Yoichi whiskys have scored higher than their Scottish counterparts. At the 2010 World Whisky Awards, whiskys from Japan won prizes in two of the top three categories for Scottish-style whisky. Currently, the only Japanese whiskys available in the United States are Hibiki 12-year-old, Yamazaki 12-year-old and Yamazaki 18-year-old, all produced by Suntory, but word on the street is that Nikka plans to launch in the U.S. sometime in 2011.

Cheers! Have a question for Sean Kenyon? Ask the bartender at bartender@westword.com

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