The rise of Japanese whisky: three Hong Kong bartenders’ favourite drops and the secrets to its growing cachet

Japanese whiskies mature faster, giving them a more rounded, smoother flavour, and distillers are more willing to experiment than in Scotland. We talk to the experts about why they are becoming more popular

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 September, 2017, 7:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 September, 2017, 11:07am

No longer lumped with an exotic outsider image, Japanese whisky is giving Scotland some stiff competition.

This year, Japanese whiskies won three honours in the World Whiskies Awards: world’s best single cask single malt, world’s best blended, and world's best grain, to add to the many other prizes the country’s whisky has snagged since 2001.

Masahiko Endo, the bartender-owner of Mizunara: The Library, in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai entertainment district, says his guests have various reasons for specifying Japanese whisky, even in cocktails.

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“I feel some of them are chasing a trend or trying to understand what Japanese whisky is. But the others have an obvious preference and idea about the taste and character of Japanese whisky,” he says.

While the spirit is processed in the Scottish style in pot stills, regional climatic dynamics shape its taste.

“Japan has four seasons and big diversity of temperature,” Endo says. “That means casks used for whisky are breathing, meaning expanding and shrinking, a lot more than Scotland. Therefore, maturation is going faster – maybe that’s one of the reasons Japanese whisky is so smooth and mild.”

Generally, Japanese whisky has a rounder taste than Scotch, he says. This, he explains, stems from a passion for quality. Its distinctive character originates from the blending and experimentation it undergoes.

Endo says that in the quest for improvement, many famous whisky brands continue to experiment and test different blends, rather than rest on their laurels.

His favourite whisky is Taketsuru, a blended malt produced by the venerable Nikka distillery and named after its founder, Masataka Taketsuru, the so-called “father” of Japanese whisky. Taketsuru whisky is an enticing blend of smoky and fruity flavours, according to Endo, who runs Japanese whisky tasting events and holds seminars in his bar, to give guests more context.

For Aaron Chan, the owner of Club Qing whisky bar in the city’s Lan Kwai Fong entertainment quarter, the secret to Japanese whisky’s success is refinement.

“The reason I enjoy Japanese whiskies is [that] I find them very refined and well crafted – much like balanced and elegant traditional Japanese cuisine,” Chan says.

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“Japanese whiskies often display unique characteristics, especially the older expressions that were released a few years ago, when stocks were more abundant and quality overall was higher.”

Chan advises interested parties to try both Scotch and Japanese whiskies. “As a whisky lover, it is rational to try more expressions, to explore new stuff and grow your knowledge. Plus, Japanese whisky has won a lot of awards since 2007 – this shows that they are not bad.”

Chan particularly likes the rare whisky originating from the now-closed Hanyu distillery, which ceased production in 2000 amid fierce competition. Among surviving distilleries, Chan cites Chichibu and Yoichi,saying they deliver a consistently high-calibre product.

Either way, Japanese whisky is best drunk neat, Chan says, and this is the waythey are meant to be enjoyed.

Tony Leung, who runs the whisky bar Ginger in the Sheung Wan neighbourhood of Hong Kong Island, agrees. Usually, he encourages customers to drink Japanese whisky straight.

“[If] the customer does not really want a whisky, or they just want something [refreshing], I will suggest a highball made with Hakushu or Hibiki Japanese Harmony,” Leung says, referring to two of the leading Japanese whisky brands.

He says most customers find Japanese whisky to be much gentler and easier to drink than whisky distilled in other countries. These drinkers, mostly “beginners”, are not familiar with Japanese whisky, and try it just because it has won international awards and become popular with their friends, he says.

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Leung says coveted brands such as Yoichi and Miyagikyo have become “hugely overpriced”and he has no plans to restock them. Instead, in his search for the best affordable bottles Leung travels to Japan and snaps up rare whiskies at auctions.

Before 2000, the market for Japanese whisky was largely domestic. The market expanded in 2001 when Nikka’s 10-year-old Yoichi single malt won Whisky Magazine’s Best of the Best award.

After that, boosted by a fervent commitment to quality, Japanese whisky began gaining the momentum that would propel it into the mainstream, and other brands have since won many accolades.

Suntory’s medal table alone resembles that of China at the last Olympic Games. The company’s Yamazaki 18-Year-Old is an eight-time double gold medal winner at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Dave Broom, the author of new travelogue The Way of Whisky: A Journey Around Japanese Whisky, says: “Whisky as a whole is a hot category at the moment, no matter where it comes from. Japanese whisky is, conceivably, the style which is hottest. Why?

“I’d say because of its inherent quality. People might buy a bottle out of curiosity, but they’ll only buy a second if they really love the character. Despite whisky having been made in Japan since the 1920s, it is relatively new on the export market, which adds to its hipness. There’s none of the baggage attached to Scotch or maybe even bourbon.”

Broom adds that the use of Japanese oak gives the spirit a singular, incense-like aroma. Plus, he says, echoing Endo, the Japanese climate works wonders on the maturation front. In his view, the resultant strains of whisky are without parallel.

“I describe them as being ‘transparent’: they have a clarity and purity of flavour which you don’t get with Scotch. They have a heightened aromatic intensity as well.”

According to Broom, its recent popularity means there’s now a temporary shortage of mature Japanese whisky, but he believes balance will be restored before too long. Reserves of Japanese whisky are unlikely to run out any time soon.