Why To Try Japanese Whisky

When it comes to whiskey, you may be a Scotch man or a Bourbon guy or maybe even an Irish whiskey bloke. Whatever your preference, don't discount the subtle, sippable whiskies from Japan. They blend Scottish sophistication with American approachability — and I'm not just saying it that way for the sake of alliteration. I spoke to Hiroyoshi Miyamoto, the master distiller of Yamazaki, one of the most acclaimed Japanese whiskies on the market, about the growing popularity of brown liquors from Japan. When he's abroad, he goes by "Mike."

Americans seems to have a growing appreciation for Japanese whisky. Why is that?

Forty years ago, we introduced our whisky to this country. It was a disaster. Nobody wanted to drink Japanese whiskey. But in the last 20 years or so, Japanese-made [has come to] mean good quality — automobiles and Sony and that sort of thing. Also, in the last 40 years, we have tried to improve the quality... I believe that good quality is universal.

Japanese whisky seems closer in spirit to Scotch (note the spelling sans "e") than American whiskey. Is that true?

We have learned how to make whisky from Scotland. We started out our own distillation back in 1923. American whisky, particularly bourbon, uses a lot of corn and wheat instead of malted barley [which is what we use]. Also, like in Scotland, we use a pot still. And we use once-used bourbon casks. We have five different kinds of casks we use for all whiskey making, [including] sherry barrels and Japanese oak.

Can you tell us more about the pot still?

Each Scottish distillery has its own shape of pot still. Even if they have to replace it, they don't change the shape. They actually make it exactly the same way. The shape of the pot still is very crucial to the whisky itself. So, we decided to create six different types of pot stills at one distillery. That's a very unique concept.

How would you describe your whisky?

The blending [of the different pot stills and the different casks creates] a whisky that is very subtle and well balanced. You may not pick up on any distinct flavor sticking out at all, but the different flavors merge and come together, harmonizing like an orchestra.

Is whisky popular in Japan?

Eighty-six years ago, whisky wasn't a normal drink in Japan. Close to 100% of people didn't know anything about whisky. The founder of Suntory wanted to create an authentic Japanese whisky for Japanese people. Scotch whisky at that time was really smoky and peaty, not appealing to the Japanese palate at all. So the theme of our whisky-making since then has been to appeal to the Japanese palate.

Do you come from a distillation background or is it something you got into later in life?

When I graduated from university, my major was microbiology. I didn't know that I would be involved with whisky-making at the time. So, I just joined Suntory (which owns Yamazaki and other whiskies) to do either beer-making or whisky-making or vodka-making, whatever we had at the time. It didn't matter to me. I was told I should be involved with whisky-making 33 year ago. Since then, I never left the whisky business.

What do you like to drink at home?

I can't afford to buy the Yamazaki 12 Year every day! We have a good blend that's a more economical price, which is not available in [the United States]. It's like Johnny Walker Red, but it's far better.

Do you still come up against people who are dubious about Japanese whisky?

Last year, I was down in Florida visiting [a wine and spirits shop]. The whole store had maybe 15 or 20 different vendors there and they provided tasting sessions at different stations. We offered customers coming into the shop just one small sip. They were like, "What? Japanese whisky? I've never heard of Japanese whisky." I could tell after one sip that they changed their expression and their minds. That encouraged me a lot. I didn't have to explain anything to them. Just tasting it speaks for itself.

Have you tried Japanese whisky? Suntory time, or time to go? Discuss in the comments.