5 Facts About Japanese Whisky

Yes, there are Japanese whiskies. And no, Japanese whisky is not misspelled. As opposed to the accepted English spelling of “whiskey,” Japanese whisky omits the “e”. Japanese whiskeys consistently earn awards at international competitions, even beating out Scotch whiskeys. Here are five FAQs about this rare treat:

Where did Japanese whisky originate?

Japanese importers originally brought Scotch whiskey to Japan in the late 1800s. In 1924, the first Japanese whisky distillery opened in Kyoto, to try to recreate this product in Japan. The company’s first distillery executive had studied whiskey-making in Scotland before returning to Japan. Within ten years, he left his employer to start his own distillery in Japan’s northern-most island.

The process for making Japanese whisky was deliberately intended to recreate Scotch whiskey; so much so that the second distillery in Japan was located in Hokkaido, which has a climate similar to the Scottish highlands. Generally speaking, Japanese whisky is made from malted barley, like Scotch whiskey, and aged in wood barrels. The nature of the wood barrels differs depending on the particular distiller, but may include wine casks, sherry casks, white oak casks, Spanish oak casks, and even former bourbon barrels.

Why is Japanese whisky so expensive?

Japanese whisky suffered from an unexpected explosion in popularity in the early 2010s as Japanese whiskys began winning awards, even beating out Scotch whiskies. This run on Japanese whiskys created an unexpected shortage. Since whisky is an aged spirit, the distilleries had not produced enough whisky in the 1990s and 2000s to meet the explosion in demand 10, 12, or even 18 years later. Japanese distilleries have attempted to satisfy the market by blending aged whisky with younger whisky but these whiskies are not the ones that are in demand, so they have not brought the price of these rare whiskeys down.

Rice whisky?

In addition to Japanese whisky made from malted barley, distilleries also produce rice whisky. Rice whisky is distinct from rice wine or saké. Saké is brewed like beer rather than distilled like spirits. Moreover, saké is matured for only six months in cedar barrels; saké does not age well beyond that time under most circumstances.

Rice whisky, on the other hand, is distilled using the same process as whisky made from corn, wheat, rye, or malted barley. A well-known spirit available in Japan, known as shochu is a distilled rice spirit. By aging shochu in wood casks, a spirit is produced that meets the legal definition of “whiskey” even though it has been produced from rice.

How is Japanese whisky served?

While you can consume Japanese whiskies in a variety of ways, including neat, on the rocks, with water, and in cocktails, the most common way to consume Japanese whisky is in a highball. To make a Japanese whisky highball, mix chilled Japanese whisky with chilled sparkling water, club soda, or sparkling mineral water.

What food pairs well with Japanese whisky?

Importantly, Japanese whisky highballs are almost always consumed with food in Japan. So, to do your Japanese whisky justice, head to the burger restaurant and whiskey bar for these pairings.

  • Smokey foods, like burgers and bacon. The smokiness of Japanese whisky and smokiness of grilled burgers from your favorite burger restaurant reinforce each other rather than compete against each other.
  • Meat, like chicken or beef. The full body of Japanese whisky makes meat taste, well, meatier. Beef tastes beefy and chicken tastes chicken-y, if that is a word.
  • Spicy foods, like jalapenos. Alcohol tames the capsaicin that causes spicy foods to burn. Pairing Japanese whisky with spicy appetizers or burgers from the burger restaurant cuts through the eye-watering, tongue numbing burn and allows other flavors in the food to shine through.
  • Desserts. Since some Japanese whiskies are aged in sherry casks and bourbon barrels, they can pick up overtones of fruit, chocolate, vanilla, caramel, and coffee. Pairing Japanese whisky with dessert at the burger restaurant can enhance the flavor of peanut butter pie or shakes made with vanilla ice cream.

Americans spend over $2,500 per year eating out. Spending a little of that trying a rare whiskey from Japan might open your eyes to a completely new and rare experience.