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Japanese Whisky

By Duncan Chase

I had my first taste of Japanese whisky on the Aleutian Islands in 1979 when we traded some king crab legs with a crewman on a Japanese freighter. It was smoother than the whiskies I had been drinking at the time and left a distinct impression. In 2004, a very good friend brought me a bottle of Hibiki 21, followed by Yamazaki 18, and a number of other Suntory whiskies. It was hard to find information at that time, but it was clear that Japan makes some very good whiskies. I started looking for them and only found a stray case of Yamazaki 12 in the State liquor supply that I added to the inventory where I was working, otherwise there wasn't much around.

Thanks in a large part to Beam Suntory, whiskies from Japan are seen more often on back bars now. The Toki Highball is easy to find and reasonably priced. Unfortunately, many of Hibiki and Harmony series are in short supply and pricey. Nikka is another company that has become well known, but some of their expressions are getting hard to find. There are other labels available that are worth trying.

Japanese whisky is hard to define. There are no labeling laws, unlike other countries that have strict guidelines. Some Japanese whiskies have whisky from Scotland as part of their blend. One of these is Sensei, priced similarly to Toki.

Akashi White Oak is a blend of Japanese whiskies that is made by a Toji, a grand-master in the art of sake making. This blended whisky is aged in Japanese Shochu cask (American Oak) for 3 years then in ex-bourbon casks before finishing in ex-sherry casks for 2 years.

Japan follows many of the Scotch whisky traditions, like spelling it without the "e". For a whisky to be labeled Scotch whisky, it must be aged and bottled in Scotland. It's not quite the same for Japanese whiskies. There are a few expressions from Kaiyō, which means ocean. These bottles say Japanese Mizunara Oak, but not Japanese whisky. The Mizunara barrels used add a distinctive flavor to the whisky. All the information I have found say that the whisky is distilled in Japan. But Kaiyō is not aged entirely in Japan, the barrels leave by ship from Osaka, and are ocean aged. Aging spirits at sea exposes the barrels to changes in temperature and pressure as well as constant motion. Maybe not Japanese in name, but definitely influenced.

It is not always easy to describe a country's whiskies. In the case of Japan, they are generally considered softer and more complex. There is a whiskey that offers a chance at comparing American and Japanese styles. Legent is a collaboration between Fred Noe, Jim Beam's great grandson who distilled the spirits, and Shinji Fukuyo of Suntory, doing the blending. Aged in wine and sherry barrels this is a true bourbon with a hint of Japan.

There are many options, more whiskies are becoming available and more being created. It's a wonderful time for whisk(e)y exploration.

February 2020


Duncan Chase has a long history bartending in local restaurants and bars and has just signed on with Fremont Mischief, a craft distillery in Fremont that makes award-winning rye whiskeys, gin, barrel-finished gin and vodka. Duncan was most recently pouring drinks at Noren Sushi Restaurant and Bar. He has worked at Columbia Tower Club, TASTE at Seattle Art Museum, and Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar.


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