(“Before we order anything, let’s start with beer!”)
This is something your Japanese friend might have said to you when entering a bar or restaurant. That’s because drinking is so common in Japan that there is even a word to describe drinking while communicating – nominication.
So, let’s nominicate about a favorite of the Japanese, the whiskey.
The word for whiskey in Japanese is uisukii, and if you already find yourself in a Robot Bar in Tokyo at this moment, you would say “Uisukii ni shite kudasai” to ask for a whiskey. Cheers!
Whiskey (or whisky, depending on whose side you’re drinking on) has been around since the 15th century in Scotland and Ireland. The word itself is an Anglicization of the Gaelic word uisce beatha or uisge beatha, which means “water of life”, or just uisce, “water”. Yes, whiskey was called “water” in the very old days, which would be suitable if you tried to downplay your drinking. Distilled alcohol was called aqua vitae in Latin, which translates into “water of life”, or “spirit alcohol” later on.
You might or might not be surprised to learn that whiskey started out as medicine and was used by physicians and surgeons.
It was called spirit alcohol and was used as an antibiotic against infections and even for marital problems, depression, and memory problems. There are a number of things one can say about this, but moving right along. Whiskey was first made in monasteries, as practice of distillation spread from Italy in the 13th century to the drunks in the north. However, kings quickly became aware of whiskey’s personal joys, and so ordered bottles from monks in the name of – cough – ailments. Henry VIII of England changed the norm when he dissolved monasteries during his rule, and monks suddenly had to make their own money.
Hence, they took their knowledge of whiskey production and offered it to the masses.
Even today, mixing whiskey with things like honey and lemon can be used to treat a cold, and whiskey on its own relieves nasal congestion. How about that for an excuse to drink?
For centuries, good whiskey has had only one name: “Scotch”, and it was synonymous with Scotland. Distillation of whiskey began in Scotland in 1494 and became an alcoholic force of its own by 1644.
In fact, Japanese whiskey is modeled from the single malt Scotch. The base is a mash of malted barley, dried in kilns that are fired with some peat, and then distilled.
Two names you should remember while studying Japanese whiskey history are Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. Torii was a pharmaceutical wholesaler and founded the Suntory brand, becoming an importer of western liquor. However, none of the countries he imported from made him very happy, so he chose to create Japanese whiskey for Japanese people. Hence, the first distillery opened in Yamazaki in 1924. Taketsuru then founded Yoichi on Hokkaido in 1936 because of the similar climate to Scotland, and since then Japanese whiskey has been on the uprise.
Early whiskey (we’re talking the 1600s) tasted raw compared to ours today, because they were not yet allowed to age. Distillation since then has become more sophisticated. Crafted in the Scottish style, Japanese whiskeys are often honey-like, sweet, smooth, with light sherry undertones, and sometimes even smoky. Until 2000, Japanese whiskey had only limited export. Two brands, however, changed this: the award-winning Suntory and Nikka.For this article, I will sample some of the whiskeys sold by Nikka, whose whiskeys have received numerous awards. Alone in 2016, the Nikka brand won 4 titles of “World’s Best Whisky” . Letting you know, the following all have a formidable 45% APV, so proceed with tipsiness.
The first one is the Nikka Coffey Malt Whiskey, which is not to be confused with the similarly named Nikka Coffey Grain Whiskey. Wondering what the difference is? Malt whiskey is made from malted barley, while grain whiskey is made from cereal grain. Anyways, the Coffey Malt Whiskey is light amber in color and is pretty mild and smooth. It is a bit oily or syrup-y at first to the tongue, which might or might not be your thing. This is due to the 100% malt bottling, which is pretty rare for a whiskey, and gives it this kind of rich texture. Its taste is robust and a bit like cinnamon and butterscotch, with lemon and orange undertones.
The Nikka Yoichi Single Malt Whiskey. This full-bodied whiskey has a very definitive smoky taste, with a briny, slightly peaty aftertaste. This is due to the traditional coal-fired distillation and the sea breeze influencing it during the aging process. You can definitely taste the saltiness of brine and smoky peat combined with some floral undertones and citrus. There are some very sharp, spicy undertones – ginger, with an aftertaste of menthol
and walnut. This one is very strong and complex.
Nikka Miyagikyo Whiskey is made in the Miyagikyo distillery in the Sendai mountains, and like its climate might suggest, it is different from the whiskey brewed in the coastal areas. If the Yoichi Single Malt was a bit too strong for your palate and senses, then maybe the Miyagikyo is a bit better. It is a light-bodied whiskey and fruitier than the others. The Miyagikyo whiskey is made in a traditional pot heated by indirect steam. It tastes smoky at first, almost like oak or tobacco, with a very aromatic, fruity, chocolate and cinnamon aftertaste. There is only a slight aftertaste, and it doesn’t linger long on your tongue, with a very pleasing finish. The Force is strong with this one. I used this whiskey to take care of my nasal congestion and forgot all about having a cold afterwards.
And in case anyone wonders, the whiskeys go really well with sushi. I tried the Nikka Miyagikyo Whiskey with some eel and crabmeat rolls. It was gone before I could take a photo, but I highly recommend!
Oh yes, and when you go for some whiskey-drinking in Nippon (Japan), make sure you know what kind of drinkers you belong to.