By Lauren Viera,
Special to Tribune Newspapers
September 8, 2013
The buying habits of whiskey enthusiasts follow a predictable trajectory: Trace their first love — usually a bargain bourbon — to their dream dram, and you'll see an increase in price and flavor-complexity over time. That's the reason so many booze hounds plateau with Japanese whiskey, a beautifully complex spirit that's both literally and figuratively foreign.
Part of the allure is the thrill of the chase. Only since 2009 have a half-dozen Japanese whiskeys been available stateside. But next month those numbers will double via its two importers — pioneer Suntory and rival Nikka — and the elite spirits category may finally garner fans beyond well-researched scotch snobs.
Produced like Scotch whisky with an emphasis on water, terroir, climate and lengthy barrel-aging, Japanese whiskey (which Japanese makers spell without the "e") is, in fact, far more complex, quelling old theories that it's inferior. Numerous international spirits awards have swayed skeptics (Suntory recently won the International Spirits Challenge's Distiller of the Year award for the third time), but the real proof is in the plumbing: Suntory's Yamazaki distillery, for instance, houses six different styles of stills, producing 60 different blends from which to produce a single-malt.
By comparison, as illustrated by a "Single Malt Whisky Pot Stills" poster hanging in the Hakushu distillery, Scottish distilleries with multiple stills favor all the same shape, stunting experimentation.
Japanese whiskey's complex nature is just one reason it has become increasingly popular stateside, says Sunichi Ninomiya, Suntory's senior general manager of its international liquor division. "In the 1980s and 1990s, the spirits trend followed fancy and premium, and people paid for it," Ninomiya says, citing Grey Goose vodka as an example. "Today, they're more interested in insight — the story behind the product — and a lot of times, they're hand-crafted."
Nikka's U.S. distributor, San Francisco–based Anchor Distilling, began importing two Japanese whiskeys in late-2012 due to a growing interest in all things Japanese, according to Anchor Distilling president David King. "Japanese whiskey is made to such a high standard," he says, "and is, in some respects, a more interesting choice than a traditionally produced whiskey from one of the old countries."
By October, four new Nikka bottles and two new Suntory bottles will double the range of Japanese whiskey available in the States. We surveyed everything available to help discerning drinkers decide where to begin.
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