Japan Rises to Rival Scotch

Japanese whisky (which adopts the Scotch spelling) isn’t exactly new. But it’s taken off as a category in recent years, and demand has outpaced what was already a limited supply.

Photo courtesy of the manufacturer

Let me tell you about the best whiskey of any kind I have ever tasted. It had strong notes of caramel, vanilla, and a bit of oak, yet was also discernably floral. It had some of the delicacy of a Lowlands Scotch, but it wasn’t from Scotland. It was from Japan’s leading distillery, Suntory. It was a Hibiki, a word that can mean “sound” or “echo.” Suntory translates it as “harmony,” a description that makes sense on the palate and may also relate to its being blended rather than single malt.

You can find it online and in some liquor stores for about $75-$80 a bottle. Premium whiskeys can cost a lot more than that. Japanese whisky (which adopts the Scotch spelling) isn’t exactly new. The Yamazaki company (now part of Suntory) released Japan’s first commercial whisky in 1924. But it’s taken off as a category since noted English critic Jim Murray named the 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask the World’s Best Whisky in his 2015 Whisky Bible. Since then, demand has outpaced what was already a limited supply and prices have risen—sometimes astronomically.

Scotch and Japanese whiskys are both made from malted barley, but Japanese water is softer, less mineral-laden. Scotch is typically aged in barrels previously used to age bourbon or sherry. Japan uses a variety of barrels, including those made from rare Mizunara Japanese oak.

“Japanese whisky is more subtle than Scotch,” says Andrew Rasizer of the Allied Beverage Group, one of the largest distributors in Jersey. “Scotch requires more aging. Japanese is more approachable. You can get more nuances out of it immediately.”

One of the best places to try Japanese whisky is Ani Ramen House in Jersey City, which carries 34 different examples. You can also find it at Dullboy in Jersey City; Stage Left Steak and Kasai, both in New Brunswick; and Stirling Tavern in Morristown.

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