Japanese Whisky: The Hot New Cocktail Trend

PHOTO: Dave Shenaut
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After a decade of Americans quoting Bill Murray's most memorable line from "Lost in Translation," discerning bartenders finally seem ready to "make it Suntory time" in the United States.

From Los Angeles restaurants and bars such as Hinoki and the Bird, Seven Grand and Lukshon to L'amant and 15 East in New York City, Japanese whiskies are now appearing on cocktail menus across the country.

"We've been using Japanese whisky for several years, and it's definitely becoming more popular among drinkers," said Bryan Dayton, beverage director at Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, Colo. "Every once in a while, it's hard to come by. But I think that as that category continues to grow, we will see more and more of them on menus here."

Japanese whisky (spelled without an "e" as in Scotland) may still be relatively unknown to American drinkers, but the product has enjoyed a progressive evolution since it was first produced commercially in 1924. The Suntory and Nikka distilleries have repeatedly taken top honors at the World Whiskies Awards in recent years. Experts all tend to agree that part of the allure of the Japanese style can be attributed to its subtlety.

"A lot of American whiskeys throw a ton of flavors at you," said David Shenaut, bar manager at Raven and Rose in Portland, Ore. "It's about the big spicy rye or the big char barrel, and it falls apart if you add water to it, whereas Japanese whisky is made to drink with water added to it. And when you dilute Japanese whisky, all of these beautiful flavor compounds come out."

Stone fruits, caramel and "floral" are all used to describe the lighter Japanese whisky profile, which pairs well with "clean, whole foods," said Shenaut.

"One of my favorites is Hibiki, which is finished in a plum liqueur barrel," he said. "So when you add soda to it, you pick up those fruity, acidic flavors from the barrel."

The whiskies also take naturally to Asian cocktail ingredients. At Goldie's in Los Angeles, bartender Brittini Rae combines 12-year-old Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt with ginger, yuzu and honey. Michael David Murphy, beverage director for Niche and Taste by Niche in St. Louis, prefers to get even more complex, mixing a 12-year Yamazaki with San Luis Del Rio Mezcal, Antica and Averna to create "The Brave" and 12-year Yamazaki with Bulliet rye, punt e mes (an Italian vermouth), averna amaro and Orangerie scotch for his popular "Happiness is a Warm Gun" cocktail.

Back in New York, John Bush, who oversees the beverage programs at Talde and Pork Slope, has used Japanese whisky to create a riff on the Manhattan, using five-spice bitters and a very sweet vermouth.

"It was delicious," he said.

It would appear that the only things preventing Japanese whisky from becoming a liquor cabinet staple are unfamiliarity and, in some instances, availability.

"People have a love and affinity for corn spirits aged in char oak here, and it's a richer spirit, whereas Japanese whisky is softer and prettier," explained Shenaut. "But once people try it, they realize that there are great whiskies being produced all over the world."

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