Of the many things that Scotland has bequeathed to the world — golf, kilts and the baffling culinary phenomenon of fried Mars bars — my favorite by far is whisky. I have an enduring fondness for peaty and powerful Scotch whiskies from Islay and the Islands (as anyone foolish enough to leave me alone with a bottle of Talisker or Laphroaig can attest), but I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that a Japanese single malt had topped the rankings in “Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015” earlier this month.
Whisky expert Murray, who compiled the guide, was effusive in his praise for the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 from beverage giant Suntory, hailing it as a spirit of “near indescribable genius.” I’m sure the news stung a bit, especially after Murray accused some Scottish distillers of taking their “eye off the ball” in recent days.
Although it was the first time for a Japanese producer to grab the top award in the “Whisky Bible,” whiskies from Japan have been scooping up accolades at international competitions for years. The Japanese have a reputation for being enthusiastic if not always early adopters of technology and ideas, so relentless in their pursuit of authenticity and perfection that they often end up improving on the original (one salient example: cars).
Rather than merely trying to replicate textbook examples of whiskies from Scotland, though, domestic producers have worked to develop their own distinctive styles. Lacking in sharp edges, Japanese whiskies tend to posses abundant fruit and excellent balance, which gives them an advantage when it comes to food pairing. A Suntory representative once told me that the company’s whiskies are best enjoyed with food, and I’ve found this to be true throughout the product line, although I haven’t sampled the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask.
Ironically, most Japanese consumers will never taste Suntory’s winning dram. Yamazaki produced only 18,000 bottles of the Single Malt Sherry Cask — all of which are destined for the European market. I learned this disappointing fact when I stopped by the Isetan department store, where they stock a range of limited-edition whiskies from around the world. The whisky sommelier there informed me that there would be little hope of getting my hands on the Yamazaki any time soon.
“It’s all been shipped abroad. There are no bottles at all in Japan,” she said.
“Not a single bottle in the entire country?” I asked incredulously.
“We called Suntory yesterday to ask if they really didn’t have any, and they said no,” she replied.
In all likelihood, however, the whisky will eventually show up at one of Tokyo’s specialty bars. This city is home to a number of whisky bars run by hard-core whisky otaku (enthusiasts), dedicated aficionados who stock their watering holes with rare bottles that they’d stashed in their suitcases and personally carried into Japan. A couple of these dauntless fans may even make a trip to Europe to hunt for the prize-winning single malt — if they haven’t left already.
Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.