A Dram of Zen

Twisted Spoke Japanese whisky selection.

Japanese offerings are finding their rightful place alongside other whiskies on bar shelves.

Remember that scene in “Lost in Translation” where Bill Murray is shooting a commercial for Japanese whisky and just can’t seem to grasp the director’s vision? The tagline, which he frustratingly emits several times to no avail, is “For relaxing times, it’s Suntory time.” That scene from the 2003 film was probably the first introduction to Japanese whisky for many American imbibers.  Japanese whisky is certainly not new—production dates back to 1870, and the country’s first distillery opened its doors in 1924. But it seems like it finally is time for this spirit to shine, as bartenders are expanding their Eastern horizons with more options on drinks menus, and whisky fans are seeking out these high-quality (and often highly allocated) bottles.

“The Japanese are well-schooled in making whisky, sending people to Scotland for decades before returning to do so in Japan,” points out Shawn Thomson. “They seem to be refusing to take short cuts like smaller barrels [or] pushing inferior products.” The general manager for Twisted Spoke, a neighborhood biker bar and restaurant in Chicago, has seen the demand for Japanese whisky grow over the past few years—and the prices for it as well.  And the offerings definitely lend comparisons to Scotch, he says, including distillers’ propensity to use peat. But neither smoky Scotch fans nor those who eschew the whiskey category completely because of a certain perception should make generalizations about Japanese whisky. “You may love some and dislike others,” he notes.

There are currently around nine whisky distilleries in Japan, with the largest production share belonging to two companies: Suntory and Nikka. Twisted Spoke offers a variety of drams from Japan, including the Yamazaki 12 Years Old and 18 Years Old, Hakushu Heavy Peat, Nikka Yoichi 15 and Ichiro Chichibu. Staff hasn’t incorporated it yet into cocktails, but since Scotch is mixed into libations, Thomson believes it may be just a matter of time.

At Roka Akor, a steak, seafood and sushi restaurant also in Chicago, the Nikka Taketsuri 12 Years Old Whisky is the base for the Honor & Glory cocktail, which also mixes lime and grapefruit juices, allspice dram, Angostura Bitters and a honey syrup infused with black tea. “Embrace the smokiness [of the whisky], don’t hide from it,” suggests assistant general manager Patrick Henaghan. “It is a beautiful ingredient and should shine in the drink.” Still, he says, even in cocktails the spirit should be treated like a single malt—enjoyed for its longevity and complexity, not poured over ice with ginger ale.

Henaghan has seen a shift in guests’ impressions of Japanese whisky—even in the last year or two. Those who previously brushed off the category, believing it was a gimmick and that the products couldn’t possibly stand up to what was coming out of Speyside or Bardstown, are giving it a second look. “Now they are much more willing to try, taste and experience something new because it is becoming more broadly recognized.” Roka Akor features twelve options from the Suntory and Nikka portfolios, including the Hibiki 12, 17 and 21 Years Old, and the Taketsuru 12, 17 and 21 Years Old.

For guests unfamiliar with this type of whisky, staff explains how Japanese producers honed their craft abroad—undoubtedly affecting the style. Masataka Taketsuru, for one, attended the University of Glasgow and learned the art and science of distilling from Scotch producers, eventually helping establish the Yamazaki Distillery before open starting his own company, which would eventually become Nikka. “In general, the style of Japanese whisky is very reminiscent of Scotch, and takes great effort to demonstrate a balance of power and grace while showing respect to the terroir,” explains Henaghan. In other words, the spirit is a liquid symbol of that core Japanese concept of yin and yang. (The Scotland connection also explains the lack of an “e” in its spelling as a nod to Scotch traditions and production methods.)

Pabu Izakaya, a Japanese restaurant and izakaya in Las Vegas, is working to showcase the largest and most eclectic collection of Japanese whiskies in the United States, according to Michael Mina Group beverage director Daniel Grajewski, snatching up rare offerings and highly allocated bottles—some which date back to the 1980s.Grajewski has two overarching goals for Pabu’s Japanese whisky program. Firstly, he wants the list to encompasses whiskies that are not just akin to Scotch, but also those that have Bourbon’s sweet caramel notes, Irish whiskey’s smoothness—and everything in-between. Secondly, he doesn’t want to shut out any guests willing to experiment. “We want Japanese whisky to be accessible to everyone, and not just the richest of the rich.”

To that end, staff asks guests about their current whisky penchant—and then makes a suggestion accordingly, finding an option that suits the palate of an American whiskey drinker, or, say, an Irish whiskey drinker. “Most guests are still in the discovery stage of Japanese whiskey.” As far as using it in cocktails, he suggests tasting it first before adding it to the shaker. While Nikka’s Coffee Grain may work well in a particular drink, the Yamazaki 12 Years Old may not due to its different mash bill and use of smoke. “As with all spirits, if you understand the base first, you can create something sensational around it.”

Whether sipped solo by a connoisseur or enjoyed in a cocktail by a newbie, these spirits are becoming more compelling and fascinating in guests’ minds, says Grajewski. “Japanese whisky is intriguing, [just] the fact that there’s a whisky in the world that is putting up a fight to the likes of Scotch whisky and Bourbon, both of which have long established histories.”

Honor & Glory Japanese Whisky Cocktail Honor & Glory

Recipe courtesy of Roka Akor, Chicago, Il

1 ½ oz. Nikka Taketsuru 12 Year Old Japanese Whisky

¾ oz. lime juice

¾ oz. grapefruit juice

1 oz. black tea-infused honey (see recipe)

½ oz. allspice dram

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Brandied cherry, for garnish


Add all ingredients except garnish to a cocktail shaker. Add ice, and shake until chilled. Strain into a chilled rocks glass over one large ice cube or sphere, and garnish with a brandied cherry.

For the black tea-infused honey:
Steep a strong black tea, strain it, cool slightly, and mix it in a 1:1 ratio with raw honey, stirring until combined.

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