Japanese whisky has come a long way in America since Yamazaki 12 hit our market more than 20 years ago. Suntory, the producer of Yamazaki, has put serious work into the U.S. for the last ten, increasing awareness among bartenders and hiring brand ambassadors, then adding the premium blended whisky Hibiki 12 and the smoky single malt Hakushu 12. Over the next year or two, Suntory will launch more whiskys here, including a Yamazaki 25, the Hakushu Heavily Peated, and—what many of us have been eagerly awaiting—an affordable blended whisky.
The history of Japanese whisky begins with Suntory. Founder Shinjiro Torii built Japan’s first whisky distillery, the Yamazaki Distillery, in 1923. Its first whisky was released in 1929. Yamazaki’s distiller studied whisky-making in Scotland, hence the commonalities between the two. But Japanese whisky isn’t an imitation of scotch; as Suntory’s U.S. West Coast brand ambassador Neyah White says, “It’s whisky made for the Japanese people, by the Japanese people.”
I asked White about the difference between Japanese and Scottish whiskys in a phone interview recently. Our conversation ranged from the way the Japanese consume whisky to Suntory’s brands and new launches.
I learned some interesting things:
1.The Japanese tend to drink whisky with food.
2. Japanese whisky is usually diluted with water and ice.
3. Yamazaki and its brethren were launched here to blaze the trail for more affordable whiskys later.
4. We are a small part of Suntory’s market; it isn’t making big money from Yamazki, Hibiki, and Hakushu sales here, and it doesn’t need to.
5. The big, scheduled price increases for Yamazaki, Hibiki, and Hakushu whiskys in the U.S. are over.
6. Yamazaki 12 isn’t a younger version of Yamazaki 18—they are different whiskys.
7. Suntory discontinued Yamazaki 10 in Japan to make way for a no-age-statement Yamazaki that won’t be hitting our market anytime soon.
8. Suntory’s biggest launch in the U.S. is yet to come: a totally new, affordably priced blended whisky. Price and launch date are not yet determined.
What follows below is an edited version of our conversation, starting with the basics of Japanese whisky.
How is the Japanese way of making whisky different from the Scottish way?
It’s not a technological or a base-ingredient difference—they aren’t vastly different and they definitely live on the same shelf. It’s a why Japanese whisky is different more than how: it’s whisky made for the Japanese people, by the Japanese people. The idea was never for them to shop it to the West and take the place of scotch. When Suntory started it all, they very clearly and purposefully tried to make a whisky for themselves.
And there are some distinct differences with the way the Japanese drink. One is that they will always eat while they’re drinking. Even on the high end of Japanese whisky—like Yamazaki—there’s always going to be something to eat on the bar or the table.
Most whisky at full-strength is not food-friendly. It’s not that the flavors are wrong, it’s that the intensity is wrong: alcohol is acidic and strong and runs over things. Japanese whiskys are designed to be served over ice, to take on water. The highball is king in Tokyo right now.
The Japanese make very food-friendly, balanced whiskys. What does that mean? They blend very heavily. If you take a single barrel, I don’t care where it’s from, and strip it down with water, 50/50, it’s going to fall apart because the barrel’s job is not to be all things. The blenders will take many barrels and create something.
Suntory doesn’t have a lot of distilleries, but they make a lot of whiskys at each one. Even our single malts have a lot of flavors jammed pretty tightly in there. When you add water to that, it stretches rather than tears. And the lowering of the alcohol level allows it to dance with food.
I liked the Hakushu in a highball, but I didn’t love the Yamazaki highball. Is the Japanese palate more subtle than ours?
[Laughs] That’s not even a question! They’ll serve the same dish at three different temperatures for a meal to explore the subtle differences. I’m just getting to where I can appreciate the flavor differences of two pieces of fish cut at different angles. It’s challenging. I understand spirits and the American palate, but Japan is a different world. When I first got into it, I used all scotch language. After a few months, I realized that wasn’t enough. Japanese whisky really does exist on a culinary plane.
For Americans new to Japanese whisky—or at least new to the Japanese way of drinking it—how should we start?
Ice. The best quality ice you can come up with. I realize that opens up all kinds of nerdy discussions, but ice is food as well. It’s something we forget in our American bars and restaurants and it breaks my heart. Cold ice. I don’t mean that in an ironic way—ice can come out in different temperatures. Bigger pieces. Freeze block-ice at home if you can.
These whiskys are fatty. They’re not overly filtered and when they chill, those fats and oils stick together. What I think happens is that they’re easier to taste then. Water, temperature drop, or both actually make it taste better to me. This isn’t universally true for all whiskys—I think bourbon goes the other direction.
As an introduction to food pairing, what would you suggest with Yamazaki 12?
There’s not a lot that’s wrong to pair with it. I really enjoy it with slightly fatty things like cheeses or dense chocolates or nuts. It’s a bit out there, but I love it with peppers—sweet or hot. Shishito peppers are great.
I was just talking to Jordan Mackay, a food writer out here, and his ‘aha’ moment was with a piece of horse mackerel, which isn’t even a particularly fatty fish, but it was revelatory for him.
Hibiki, which to me is slightly more acidic than Yamazaki, with anything that has egg in it is always a home run. Or chawanmushi, a delicate egg custard that’s usually warm, almost like a soup. It loves Hibiki.
Hibiki is a blend, right?
Yes, but it’s not a blended malt. It’s about half grain whisky from our third distillery (one we don’t talk about yet). It’s mostly corn and about five percent barley. We use three different settings on big old column stills to make what we think are three very distinct grain whiskys we call ‘light,’ ‘heavy,’ and ‘fruity.’ These are big, raw things, nothing like what’s coming out of the single malt distilleries. It’s pretty much all aged in American oak—hogsheads and new American oak puncheons. It’s round, kind of sweet, and the beginning, middle, and end are exactly the same. That gets blended with malts from the Hakushu and Yamazaki distilleries.
In America we think of blended whiskys as more affordable; in Japan, not at all. Thinking about all the whiskys in there, the grain whisky is more than 30 years old! That’s not a throw-away whisky!
Doesn’t Hibiki have some whisky aged in plum wine casks in it?
Yeah, one of the malts is Yamazaki that has passed through a plum wine liqueur cask. Some of the Yamazaki component of Hibiki is straight American oak, some has gone through Spanish oak that held wine, and some (very little) has gone through Japanese oak.
For the plum wine barrel, we take an American oak bourbon barrel that’s been used for about 40 years, so it’s getting kind of tired. They’ll flame it out and then fill it full of sugar and ume—we call them plums but they’re actually apricots—these tiny green tropical stone fruits. Then we add watered-down new make. It sits and macerates for two or three years and is sold as a brand called Toasted Cask Umeshu, which is actually very popular in Japan as a seasonal thing you share with your family. So they’ll take that cask and put 10-year-old Yamazaki to finish in it for two years. This is the only time we move whisky from barrel to barrel as part of a program. So that’s just one of the 24-plus whiskys that are in the Hibiki, but it’s definitely where some of the tartness is coming from.
It sounds like Suntory does way, way more than we’re seeing in the American market.
Oh, yeah, it’s a huge company. We’re only getting a tiny taste of that here. I won’t even get into all the special editions. I just saw a Hibiki “Deep Harmony” that’s finished in red wine casks from Austria! It’s only a 3,000-case deal—basically a reward for the Japanese market.
We are starting to break a little further into Suntory’s whiskys later this year though. We’ll be getting Yamazaki 25 here in the states. We don’t have pricing on it yet. We’ve been discounting everything pretty heavily in this market but I don’t see any reason this will be.
That leads to another question I had: I’d always heard Yamazaki and the other Suntory whiskys were under-priced to get a foothold in the U.S.
There’s no economic need for Suntory to sell Yamazaki outside Japan—they could easily drink it all there. The Suntory world of whisky doesn’t revolve around Yamazaki, it just happens to be the flagship. But the flagship isn’t the biggest boat in the water; we have a lot of other things behind it. So Yamazaki, followed by Hibiki, and then Hakushu, were all introductions to Japanese whisky that Japan decided to share with the rest of the world.
It’s more of an investment than a business model: we’re not making money on these. So we’ve been slowly letting the price rise up to where it is in Japan (which we’ve done over the past three years—you’ll notice price increases every spring).
So have we hit the ceiling for Yamazaki yet, price-wise?
We’re there. We’re not trying to catch up with Japan anymore. It’s still more expensive there, but that’s a result of taxes in Japan. That being said, all whisky is getting more expensive.
Let’s talk more about the Yamazaki whiskys.
The Yamazaki 12 and the 18 are very different whiskys—the 18 is not merely an older version of the 12. They have vastly different make-ups. The 18 is almost all aged in Spanish oak that held sherry, with dashes of American and Japanese oak to round it out. The 12-year is almost all American oak with dashes of sherry casks and Japanese oak to give it a middle and end. If you go blind on those and look at the 12 as Yamazaki ‘late summer’ and the 18 is Yamazaki ‘dead winter,’ it makes a lot more sense than those age statements.
Yamazaki recently discontinued its 10-year-old in favor of a no-age-statement whisky, right?
The 10-years were just mini versions of the 12—they didn’t change the focus much. They were just more affordable, working day whiskys. But having a 10 and a 12-year, which were both very popular, was an incredibly difficult thing to do from a management point of view.
We’ve come up with what’s being called Shin—it just says Yamazaki with no age statement on it. Shin means “new” or “renewed.” It’s incredibly dangerous in Japan to take away this brand that people have grown up with, to say, ‘we’re not making that one anymore, here’s New Coke.’ But it’s working and it’s very exciting. And to be able to concentrate on blending these younger and really well-made whiskys gives us much more freedom while letting us hold onto some of the older stock.
We’ve been making better whisky in the last five years than we ever have before and the whisky that we’ll make three years from now when we finish the $15 million improvements to Yamazaki that started this year—that’s going to be the best whisky we’ve ever made.
Will that no-age-statement Yamazaki be coming to the U.S. anytime?
There’s a lot of talk about that. I don’t want to say I’m against it, but I just don’t think we’re ready for it yet; we’re bringing so much other new stuff in next year. It’s the new face of affordable single malts from us, so it will eventually.
Speaking of affordable, there’s a blended whisky called Toki coming soon.
Yep, it’s a brand new everything. I don’t have a whole lot on Toki yet but I will say that when it comes, it won’t be a small launch. It’s going to be very, very big. We have very high expectations for this whisky. I’ve been getting different versions of this along the way for about a year now and I’ve finally had the final one. I had enough to make a cocktail, and that was one killer Manhattan! I’m very pleased with the direction it’s landed in. This is going to change a lot of the way we do business. So far, we’ve been curating this tiny taste of the whisky scene in Japan. This was Yamazaki’s job for the last ten years: to get the American public familiar with Japanese whisky so that Toki—which we didn’t even imagine back then—can exist.
Any idea on pricing for Toki?
That’s the dangerous part, the part I can’t get into. That’s many layers above my pay grade! I will say it will be affordable.
What can you tell me about other new launches for next year?
At the end of this year, the Yamazaki 25-year will launch, and then much more accessibly, the Hakushu Heavily Peated. That should be somewhere in the $150 range on the shelf. It’s a piece of the Hakushu 12-year. When I present it, people say, ‘Oh, you made an extra-peated one,’ but no, this is what you might call the peat additive that we put into the 12-year to give it a little smoke.
The way Hakushu is made, we take containers upon containers of unpeated barley. That clocks in naturally at 3 ppm phenol—that’s just what barley does. And then for the last one, we request that the maltster just bomb it, to go as high as they’re capable of. The maltster we use gets it to around 25 ppm, the same vicinity as Bowmore, which is a comfort zone for us, since we own Morrison Bowmore. That is kept completely separate from the unpeated barley the whole way through. So at the end of the day, you end up with lots of unpeated barley and some smoke bombs. When it comes time to assemble the single malts, they dash in the smoke. This, the Hakushu Heavily Peated, is that smoke all by itself. In the world of whisky, you can’t put this next to an Octomore or a Supernova [editor's note: those whiskys boast phenol levels of more than 100 ppm], but in the world of Japanese whiskys, this is very heavily peated. And it’s delicious. In my head, when I think of cool things happening in whiskey in the U.S. market, I think of three things: Japanese whiskys, heavily peated whiskys, and rye. This covers two out of three, so I think it’s going to be a home run.
For further reading
NPR: Japanese Whiskey Teases U.S. Consumers By Playing Hard To Get
The New York Times: Japanese Whiskeys, Translated From the Scottish
Tasting Notes Blog from Astor Wines & Spirits: Demystifying Japanese Whisky