In a city of 13 million, you’d think it would be easy to find a Japanese whisky bar. But you can wander the tight warren of streets and alleys that comprise Tokyo’s Shinjuku district for nearly an hour before stumbling upon Three Bar.
Descend the stairs, and you’ll enter a smoky, dimly lit room that can only be described as a speakeasy. It’s tiny — three tables and maybe five seats at the bar, where tuxedoed bartenders are busy shaking and stirring with flair.
After a brief “lost in translation” moment with the waiter, two fingers of Japan’s finest Nikka Pure Malt arrive. Whisky speaks a universal language of barley, water and oak; it’s a welcome taste in a foreign city.
By all accounts, Japanese whisky is becoming a welcome taste around the world. Buzz about the country’s single malt began whenBill Murray’s character immortalized the line, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time,” in the 2003 movie Lost in Translation. Twelve years later, the buzz grew to a roar when another Murray — whisky expert Jim Murray — declared the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 to be the World Whisky of the Year for 2015.
Though the hype has died down a notch, it’s clear the celebration is still in full swing in Japan, a country perhaps better known for sake and beer. How else to explain the canned whisky highballs available in vending machines, or the ‘salarymen’ tipsy from after-work highballs, packing Tokyo’s trains?
“Japanese whisky is a thing, but it is a cult thing, not mainstream yet in Alberta,” said Andrew Ferguson, of Kensington Wine Market, which carries a good selection of all whiskies including a range from Japan. “But it is catching on.”
And like any trend, once you get a taste, it’s fun to travel to the source for the full experience.
Japan has been making whisky in the style of Scottish single malt for nearly 100 years. The country’s first distillery, Yamazaki, near Kyoto, is praised for its pristine water and ideal whisky-ageing climate (humid and foggy, just like Scotland). What’s more, though Japan has far fewer distilleries than Scotland — approximately nine to Scotland’s 98 — the distilleries make up for it by producing a huge variety of whiskies with flavours that range from light to full-bodied, and plain to peated.
Yamazaki, for example, uses different stills and a variety of yeasts to achieve flavour variations, and then heats them directly by fire and indirectly with steam, because different heating methods further distinguish the character of the single malts. You’ll learn this on a Yamazaki Distillery tour, which is a good place to start on a whisky journey through Japan.
The English audiotape also explains that various casks are used for ageing the whisky, from American white oak to ex-sherry casks from Spain, and ex-Bordeaux casks from France. The tour’s focus is on single malts with age statements, so it’s perplexing to see that the post-tour free whisky sample, Yamazaki Single Malt (a single-malt blend with no age statement), comes out in a large glass with a fizzy topper — it seems counterintuitive to sample a product that’s been diluted with soda water.
Ask to sample it neat and you’ll be presented with Suntory whisky Kakubin. Kakubin is a blend made with barley and corn that’s smooth and sweet. It’s also the most popular whisky in Japan. Whisky bars in Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka have large selections available by the glass, served neat or over a giant sphere of ice, and the experience of finding them and squeezing inside their capsulelike quarters is priceless.