It took a generation of formidable bartenders to make us order cocktails with Scotch. Purists will still blanche at the thought and insist on neat drams, at a stretch with water on the side, but the rest of us have come to adore the smoky intensity of a Penicillin, the gentle sweet spice of a Rob Roy and the floral notes of a Speyside Old Fashioned. Yet Scotch’s Japanese counterpart, produced exactly the same way, has been left on the topmost shelves of the back bar, dragged out to pour single neat measures and held in reverence. It’s about time we all started mixing Japanese whisky.
Our reluctance to build upon the incredible elegance of Japanese whisky is largely due to the price that some bottles command. When you’re paying upwards of £7 for a single measure in most bars it seems sacrilegious to even have citrus and sugar in the same building let alone in the glass. But is this attitude just a hangover from our days as Scotch purists, or perhaps simply because Japanese whisky cocktails aren’t entrenched in our collective history the same way bourbon, cognac and Scotch are. A bottle of good cognac can set you back even more when it comes to counting our pounds yet no one is raising an eyebrow at Sazeracs.
Both Suntory, which produces the well-known ranges of Hibiki, Hakushu and Yamazaki, and Nikka – the two main names in Japanese whisky – produce blends designed for mixing which are younger and don’t have the same staggering price tag as their older expressions. Nikka Blended whisky was designed to be pourable behind cocktail bars as were both Hakushu and Yamazaki Distillers Reserve with their forward fruity flavours of yuzu, grapefruit and lemon and raspberry and coconut respectively. Higher in price, Nikka From The Barrel is considered by many top London bartenders as the best mixing Japanese whisky available today – it’s candied orange peel notes and rich cinnamon and clove mean it can stand up in Manhattans, Paper Planes and even a Penicillin with Yoichi.
Of course we should be looking to the Japanese, the very creators of these fine whiskies, to note drinking styles. Any journey to the bar scene of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya or Sapporo will reveal locals sipping on Highballs (equal parts whisky and soda water) and Mizuwari (a lengthy technique of reducing the whisky with still water). There the art of blending your whisky is just as important as what is in the bottle and if anything the Japanese style of drinking their own whiskies reveal that it is made to be diluted and drunk in these simple cocktails.
While Japanese whisky is made in the exact way that Scotch is, the maturation process differs thanks to the cooler more mountainous climate, rendering these whiskies lighter, gentler notes. The Japanese are also big fans of cask finishes, employing ex-bourbon, ex-scotch and ex-sherry. That said, it would be a difficult task to distinguish between Scotch and Japanese whisky in a blind tasting, as the Japanese remained very faithful to the original style. One are of increasing differences is the rare use of Mizunara, Japanese oak, which gives distinct coconut and sandalwood notes to the whisky.
“Flavour-wise Japanese whisky has predominately lighter flavour notes. But then you have something like Yoichi – Nikka’s island whisky – where they still use coal-fires in production so you have a much heavier style that is slightly smoky and really oily. You need to start with the neat whisky and once you understand its flavour profile it’s easy to make a cocktail,” says Nathan Shearer of Callooh Callay who recently won the UK final of the Nikka Perfect Serve competition. “Japanese whisky will always lend a lighter, more harmonious flavour than bourbons which tend to be very sweet or rough. And of course it is all about selecting the right whisky. If you tried to make a Whisky Sour with Yamazaki 12 year old you’d be wasting your time as it won’t cut through the egg, citrus and sugar.”
Nathan recommended starting off anyone’s Japanese whisky cocktail adventure with a classic Old Fashioned or Manhattan, using the staple Nikka From The Barrel. He also likes to champion a White Manhattan using Miyagikyo (another Nikka whisky), Cocchi Americano and peach bitters which enhances the whisky’s natural cherry blossom flavours.
Unfortunately London’s only true Japanese cocktail bar, Mizuwari on Old Compton street, is now permanently closed. However an ex-staff member has revealed the predominate ingredients used to enhance Japanese whisky on the ten-strong menu were cherry, pear, yuzu and shiso leaves.
While Japanese whisky will never be as common as Scotch, especially in London bars, it is a product that deserves more attention from the bartending world. Simple serves, from the Highball to the Old Fashioned, can expose the category to more curious drinkers and make the stunning whiskies approachable to a wider audience. Spirits are made to be drunk, however the drinker chooses to enjoy them, and there is simply no point to bottles gathering dust, only to be brought down from the shelf when someone who can handle sipping on 40% abv spirits happens to order a dram. Viva the Japanese whisky revolution!