Land famous for sake and shochu, Japan has also become one of the best whiskey makers in the world. Although whiskey making in Japan is relatively new compared to Scotland and Ireland (places with centuries of whiskey history), Japan has made great strides in a short period of time. In 2015, Jim Murray’s internationally renowned whiskey bible named Yamazaki of Suntory Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best whiskey in the world. Japanese whiskey brands have even appeared in Hollywood pop culture, most notably in the movie. Lost in translation with Bill Murray. For whiskey enthusiasts the world over, Japanese whiskey is almost second to none, responsible for some of the best products in the world.
For such an in-depth subject, an expert is needed. Enter Shigefumi (Shige) Kabashima, the owner and manager of the bar NR and ROKC (Esquire’s “America’s Best Bars 2017” and Thrillist’s “America’s Best Cocktail Bars 2018″) in New York City. Born and raised in Kyushu, Japan, Kabashima has twenty years of bartending and management experience. He has also taught Japanese bartender style seminars and has been a consultant for hotels, restaurants and bars in the United States and abroad. His latest business is NR, a unique Japanese cocktail and ramen restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The design of the distinctive establishment was inspired by the port cities of the Meiji period in Japan (1868-1912). The cocktail program is extensive, offering both classic and innovative cocktails, many of which contain Japanese whiskey.
What makes Japanese whiskey unique?
The making of Japanese whiskey is strongly inspired by Scotland (hence the spelling of the whiskey without the “e” after Scotch Whiskey). A man is responsible for launching the whiskey tradition in Japan – Masataka taketsuru, a Japanese chemist who arrived in Scotland in 1918. Originally from Scotland to study chemistry, Taketsuru quickly fell in love with whiskey and eventually brought the tradition back to Japan. Things moved quickly and by the 1920s whiskey was already commercially produced in Japan, centered on the first Japanese whiskey distillery in Kyoto.
Similar to scotch, Japanese whiskey also uses a large amount of malted barley. This barley is then crushed, distilled twice and aged in American oak or sherry barrels. Japanese whiskey makers will also use native oak from Mizunara, giving the whiskey a scent of citrus and spices. Most whiskey distilleries in Japan are owned by two companies: Nikka and Suntory. But there is an interesting fact about the Japanese whiskey industry that makes it unique from other countries. Although Japan is influenced by Scotch whiskey, there is a major divergence in terms of sharing. Unlike Scotland, there is no sharing between Japanese distilleries, forcing each Japanese distillery to self-innovate. It is therefore difficult to classify Japanese whiskey according to a singular style, resulting in a diverse range of flavors ranging from fruity or herbaceous to citrus or vanilla.
This diversity can be a challenge even for experts. “Since there is such a variety these days, I think it’s hard to tell the difference in taste by category. Personally, I love drinking Yamazaki 12 Year Old Japanese Whiskey and Buffalo Trace Bourbon, ”Kabashima said.
The art of Japanese whiskey cocktails
While it’s phenomenal on its own or on ice, Japanese whiskey is also great in cocktails. In Japan, highball whiskey (whiskey with sparkling water with the occasional citrus zest) is ubiquitous. Due to its wide range of taste profiles, it is important to balance the flavors of the ingredients when making a Japanese whiskey cocktail.
“I think the whiskey has a unique sweetness and barrel flavor,” Kabashima said. “So I try to add sweetness, acidity and bitterness to make each flavor stand out more. Be very aware of the types of flavors that need to be combined with the sweetness of the barrel notes in Japanese whiskey and bourbon, and then try to find ingredients close to that taste to make it. Experience!”
While some cocktail and whiskey lovers may be intimidated by the process of creating their own Japanese whiskey cocktail, it’s helpful to remember that sometimes simple is better. For Kabashima, some of his favorite flavor additions to Japanese whiskey are yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit with hints of lime and tangerine) and bitters of Angostura with Bourbon.
This Japanese cocktail uses the Nikka Coffey grain. First released in 2012 by Nikka, this corn whiskey is distilled in a Coffey still (column still) and aged in American oak barrels (remade and re-calcined), imparting a smooth, mellow flavor. The central philosophy of creating Kabashima cocktails is a combination of balance and culture. Because Kabashima has experience in both Japan and America, he knows how to create cocktails suitable for both markets.
“Many Japanese like highballs and other low alcohol items, ”Kabashima said. “But I think a lot of people in New York City prefer high alcohol content instead. NR, we offer both. “
Note: Burdock is a long, slender root vegetable popular in Japan. When cooked, burdock root is crunchy with a sweet, earthy flavor. Burdock chips can be purchased at your local Japanese or Korean market.
- 1.5 oz Nikka coffee beans
- oz of burdock infused amaro
- ⅔ oz of Dolin blanc
- 1 dash of homemade angostura bitter (cinnamon, star anise, angostura bitter infused with cloves)
- Mix and mix all the ingredients together.
- Pour into a glass.
- Garnish with burdock shavings.