A journey to international acclaim

As nightfall descends over Tokyo, the neon lights that trace the vertical skyline of Shinjuku ward blaze to life. By 8:30 on a Friday evening, Bar Zoetrope, which specialises in Japanese whisky, is nearly full. Many of the guests have travelled considerable distances—from Hong Kong, Australia, and Germany—to sample the bar’s collection of more than 300 varieties.

“Usually half of our customers are Japanese, but this year we have more visitors from overseas,” says the bar master Atsushi Horigami, placing a neat shot of Yamazaki Single Malt 2015 before me. The liquor glowed a deep amber colour and tasted of melon custard and sweet spices.

When I asked why Zoetrope has attracted so many foreign guests recently, Horigami looked at me with befuddlement. “Japanese whisky is very popular,” he answers tersely.

To describe Japanese whisky (which, like its Scottish progenitor, is spelled without an ‘e’) as “popular” is an understatement: the drink has become a global sensation. According to Euromonitor, exports have risen by 86 per cent since 2008. Whisky giant Suntory expects to ship 270,000 cases overseas this year, up from 230,000 in 2014. Despite increases, retailers in New York, London and Hong Kong have trouble meeting the demand for premium drops.

“Japanese whisky is huge right now. People ask for it a lot more in bars, and liquor stores can’t keep it in stock,” Tony Sachs, a drinks writer based in New York, tells me.

The Japanese had been producing ersatz whisky from grain alcohol since the early 1900s (the results were not good), but the industry began in earnest when Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka, teamed up with Shinjiro Torii, who created Suntory and opened the country’s first distillery at Yamazaki, near Kyoto, in 1923. Taketsuru had travelled to Scotland in 1918 to study chemistry at the University of Glasgow before apprenticing at Longmorn distillery in Speyside and Hazelburn in Campbeltown. After returning to Japan, he worked for several years under Torii, and then built his own distillery in 1934 at Yoichi, in Hokkaido.

In the years following World War II, Japan embraced the drink wholeheartedly, along with Western ideas and pop culture. As the economy grew, so did whisky consumption. Though sales slumped when the bubble burst in the 90s, domestic distillers soldiered on, and Japan has become the world’s third largest whisky producer, behind Scotland and the US, with 10 active distilleries scattered around the country.

The world discovered Japanese whisky when a 10-year-old single malt from Nikka’s Yoichi distillery was awarded ‘Best of the Best’ in a blind tasting organised by Whisky Magazine in 2001, eclipsing top drams from Scotland. The Scots were outraged, but the defeat was just a taste of things to come. Since then, Japanese entries have consistently won prizes at international competitions, and this year critic Jim Murray named a 2013 Yamazaki single malt matured in sherry casks from Suntory the “Best in the World” in the 2015 edition of The Whisky Bible.

Over the years, the Japanese have developed a unique style while remaining faithful to methods inherited from Scotland. Nikka, for example, still heats its pot stills with finely powdered charcoal, while Ichiro Akuto of Chichibu distillery—the small producer outside of Tokyo that makes the coveted brand Ichiro’s Malt—floor malts some of his own barley. “The techniques are the same, but the thinking is completely different,” Zoetrope’s Atsushi Horigami explained. “The Scots make whiskies that preserve tradition, but Japanese distillers look for new ways to make the product delicious. They’re like a bunch of old guys sitting around a table trying to surprise each other.” Whereas Scottish producers regularly trade bulk spirit to mix into their blends, their Japanese counterparts distil a wide range of whiskies within the same company, allowing for greater innovation. Horigami described how Suntory had made a small batch of umeshu (plum liquor) matured in roasted barrels “specifically so that they could have umeshu casks to age whisky.” The casks were later used to impart exotic floral and fruity notes to several products, including the 12-year-old Hibiki blended whisky.

Japanese whiskies are admired for their soft and supple texture, roundness, and complexity. Rarely peaty, the classic expressions veer toward the sweet spectrum of flavours. As in Japanese cuisine, balance is valued above all other characteristics. Perhaps for this reason, the whiskies pair remarkably well with food. As Shiji Fukuyo, a chief blender at Suntory, told me, “Yamazaki single malt has multi-layered flavours and depth, so it matches miso and soy sauce.” Crisp Hakushu single malt pairs with savoury and spicy dishes, as well as smoked or grilled foods.

In London, Japanese whiskies feature prominently on the drinks lists at Asian fusion eatery Bam-bou, rotisserie restaurant Bull in a China Shop, and Sosharu, a new izakaya pub by chef Jason Atherton slated to open in 2016. Ronin in Hong Kong offers an impressive selection of drams— including bottles from boutique makers such as Chichibu distillery and Akashi, near Kobe—that complement Matt Abergel’s contemporary Japanese cuisine.

The growing interest means that more Japanese whisky will make it abroad, but limited-edition varieties and bottles from smaller producers will remain elusive. On a recent visit to Zoetrope, Horigami served me 18-year-old Kirin Fuji Sanroku single malt from Fuji Gotemba distillery, which is owned by the beer company Kirin. The whisky had lovely balance, with notes of vanilla and toffee on the palate. I finished the evening with an intense, smoky Ichiro’s Malt single malt bottled especially for Zoetrope’s 3rd Anniversary. “You can only find these in Japan,” Horigami said, pointing out several bottles on the shelves behind him. The man to my left, a traveller from Hong Kong, nodded knowingly. We were both thinking the same thing: the experience is worth the trip.