Ask nearly any whiskey drinker back in 1999 or 2000 about Japanese whiskey, and you’d have very likely encountered a blank look. By 2001, however, the whiskey world was all abuzz with the topic after a 10-year-old single malt from Nikka’s Yoichi distillery was awarded “Best of the Best” over and above any Scotch whisky in a much-publicized blind tasting organized by the Britain-based Whisky Magazine. This shot across the bow of the Scotch whisky industry seemed not to have caused any real stirrings in the Scotch whisky industry itself.
Until, that is, folks began to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that it kept happening in forum after forum. Indeed, Japanese whiskeys continue consistently to win high critical praise, as well as prizes at international drinks competitions, and — most importantly — they keep selling very well, despite increasing prices.
In 2014, whiskey geeks were stunned when Beam Inc., the parent company of Kentucky bourbons Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, and Scotch whisky legend Laphroaig, announced a merger with Japanese spirits and beverage company Suntory for $16 billion.
Japanese whiskey essentially began in 1923, when entrepreneur Shinjiro Torii opened Japan’s first whiskey distillery in Yamazaki, an area between Kyoto and Osaka. By 1929, the distillery was producing the world’s first Japanese single malt whiskey, “Suntory Whisky Shirofuda” (White Label).
The entrepreneur behind the entrepreneur, so to speak, was distillery manager Masataka Taketsuru, widely considered the father of Japanese whiskey who would later go on to start the Yoichi Distillery in 1934 and the company now known as Nikka, the other major player in the Japanese whiskey industry (second only to Suntory).
That same year the Beam merged with Suntory, the Japanese company was named Distiller of the Year for the fourth time, and for the third year in a row, at the International Spirits Challenge. Then, at the end of 2014, the critic Jim Murray named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 (from the newly minted Beam Suntory) as the best whiskey in the world, praising it as “near indescribable genius,” and gave it 97.5 points out of 100.
One consequence of all this success is that the range and availability of Japanese whiskeys here in the United States have grown steadily. Of course, this new-found demand is straining stock levels, so the supply side has opted for two familiar re-jigs: non-age-statement whiskeys (NAS), and high-end “innovative” blends. As I’ve noted before, NAS whiskeys have a greater marketing hurdle in the single-malt category, as years of “age matters” marketing has taken root. Blended whiskeys tend to be more forgiving, since folks will often drink them with ice and/or soda. Also, since single malt drinkers had been mostly ignoring blends for years, selling them on “innovation” has proved fairly easy.
The latest innovative blend (released in June and exclusive to North America) is:
Suntory Whisky Toki Japanese Whisky (43 percent abv; $40): This lovely blend of single malt and single-grain whiskeys from all three Suntory distilleries is clearly designed to be an affordable, everyday whiskey, with a bright, honeyed, lightly fruited (green apple, peach) nose, with additional notes of caramel and vanilla, coming through on the fruity somewhat creamy palate with more apple and apricot, some ginger, pepper and oak. The finish shows a little heat. Overall, this is balanced, yummy and very easy drinking neat or with soda or with ice, or however else you like it. L’chaim!