How to Drink Japanese Whisky
Posted Jan 12 | By Natalie Migliarini
Japanese whisky is growing in popularity - what do you need to know about drinking, tasting, and serving this new addition to the whisky landscape?
Over the past two decades, Japanese whisky varieties have gone from a little-known additions to the spirits shelf, to international award winners - and serious competitors to established brands in the West. This rising profile has delivered bottles of Japanese whisky not just into the hands of specialist bars and connoisseurs, but to everyday whisky fans, who are discovering a range of new tastes and experiences, from numerous Japanese producers, every day.
If you’re a fan of fine spirits, it’s surely only a matter of time before you encounter a Japanese whisky. To help you navigate your first dram, it’s worth having some idea of the tastes and flavours that await you - along with the serving possibilities and food pairings that might enhance your experience. With that in mind, check out this guide to drinking, and understanding, Japanese whisky…
Expect diversity (but not brand diversity)
Unlike their counterparts in Scotland (where there are plenty of resources to go around) Japanese distillers do not share or swap casks and other flavour-inducing stocks: the relatively small number of distillers in Japan means competition is higher, and resources more closely guarded. To make up for the lack of brand diversity, Japanese distilleries produce a far greater range of whisky varieties themselves, with an obvious dramatic difference in flavour profiles.
Practically, if you find yourself disliking one Japanese whisky variety, don’t write-off the label entirely: you’re sure to find something you like at the other end of the spectrum.
Don’t expect scotch
Given its heritage and production techniques, Japanese whisky is often compared, and referred to, as ‘scotch’. While the association is helpful, it can also be misleading - especially since we don’t consider Scotland’s whisky (or indeed whisky from anywhere else) monolithic. Aside from the fact that scotch, by definition, has to come from Scotland, Japanese whisky has been carefully developed and calibrated with love and care for over a century to have its own flavour profiles and cultural resonance quite apart from its forebears.
Categorising japanese whisky as ‘scotch’ doesn’t really do it justice - so when you try your first dram, be aware of the expectations you might be bringing.
Understand the basics
Like the spirits of any country, the whisky Japan produces hosts a spectrum of flavour variety, but - of course - it helps to have some idea of the vague parameters before you jump in. Generally, Japanese whiskies are perceived to be lighter, and more delicate than their western counterparts. First impressions often characterise Japanese whisky as silky and smooth, with a more complex body, texture and mouthfeel than international alternatives..
Sweetness and fruit are also considered common characteristics of Japanese whisky - but there’s plenty of room for spice, heat, and smoke amongst the many varieties.
Drink it with water
When you order a Japanese whisky, especially if you’re actually in Japan, the most popular way to drink it is with water - in a style known as the ‘highball’. Japanese highballs comprise whisky served with soda water, and often ice - the softer taste makes the drink more suitable as a food pairing, and the style is popular amongst younger drinkers. Such is its popularity, that highball cans are actually sold across Japan in supermarkets and vending machines.
Highballs break down roughly as a 1:4 mix of whisky and soda water, normally served in a chilled glass. Garnish with a lemon slice to finish the effect.
Pair it with food
The lightness and fruit tones of Japanese whisky mean there’s no shortage of ideas for food pairings. Complex flavours often work well, especially in Japan, where fish, pork, and salty ingredients are often on the menu - but the earthy profile of tempura and other fried foods also suit the smokiness of whisky developed in the country’s mountainous distilleries. Meanwhile, the characteristic sweetness of Japanese whisky means a variety of desert items make for delicious and satisfying pairings.
There’s obviously no rule that Japanese whisky should be paired with food - but it’s worth remembering that there are plenty of possibilities beyond the ubiquitous highball.
Explore the possibilities
Don’t be overwhelmed by the highball culture - and don’t be afraid to explore Japanese whisky varieties in other formats. Beyond the whisky-and-water, or ‘with food’ trope, there’s plenty of scope to try Japanese whisky neat, on the rocks, or as a cocktail. Tokyo’s famous bars have been developing whisky cocktails for years, weaving ingredients like citrus, cherry, nuts, and peppers - and a range of spirits - into an exciting catalogue of creations.
The versatile character of Japanese whisky makes it a surprisingly useful cocktail base - it’s up to you to experiment.
Image courtesy: Dekanta.com