If you know Nikka Whisky only as the producer of the extraordinarily cheap peatless Black that fills the nether regions of Japan’s whisky market, you might be surprised to learn that the company makes around 40 other styles — and one of them has just been voted the best single malt in the world.

At the World Whisky Awards (WWA) in Glasgow, Scotland, last month, a panel of 16 connoisseurs blind tasted over 200 contenders and awarded the top accolade to Nikka’s Yoichi 20 Years Old, a peaty malt distilled on the western coast of Hokkaido. The judges described the winning drink as “a dense Dr Pepper or Vimto with an aroma that explodes with water,” “an amazing mix of big smoke and sweet black currant” and “liquid dessert.”

Naofumi Kamiguchi, spokesperson for Nikka Whisky, called the award “the greatest we’ve ever received,” and attributed the success in part to Yoichi’s coal-fired stills, a traditional method that even Scotch-makers have abandoned in favor of more efficient steam- or oil-fired stills. He also credits Whisky Magazine, the British publication that organized the awards.

“When they started (10 years ago) critics began tasting whisky from around the world,” says Kamiguchi. “Before 2001 (when Yoichi’s Single Cask 10 Years Old won top honor at a precursor of the WWA), you wouldn’t find a Japanese whisky in bars in Azabu or other trendy areas.

“Japanese people always preferred Scotch, they believed Scotch was the original whisky, and they ignored the quality of Japanese whisky,” Kamiguchi continues. “Now it’s totally different — almost 100 percent of bars stock Japanese whisky.”

For Nobuyuki Nakamura, WWA judge and manager of the Scotch-centric Campbelltoun Loch Bar in Yurakucho, Tokyo, the rising reputation of Japanese malts is the result of increased investment in the spirit from the big distillers.

“In the ’90s, Suntory started getting serious and invested heavily in R&D and marketing,” he says. The WWA judges picked Suntory’s Hibiki 30 Years Old, no stranger to awards, as this year’s best blended whisky, making 2008 the first time that both major Japanese whiskymakers took key WWA honors.

Sadly, you’ll never know how good the Yoichi was, since the exact 1987 chill-filtered variety that bagged the award has already sold out. But next month Nikka will release 1,350 bottles of non chill-filtered (a style that many whisky lovers consider superior) Yoichi 20 Years Old at ¥20,000 a pop.

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