The last two or three years have seen Japanese whisky's profile rise mightily, as the dark-horse spirit has won award after award and, on occasion, even beat Scotch at its own game. While there's not a huge selection available in the Twin Cities (or the U.S. in general, for that matter), what is available is well worth a look.
See also: The 10 Best Minnesota Beers
The history of Japanese whisky is not a long one, but it is wonderfully complex and perhaps even worthy of a good indie movie. A quick summary: In the mid-to-late 1800s when Japan's borders were opened, alcohol producers realized the potential in producing and selling the spirits sought after by the growing influx of foreign businessmen.
In 1921, Shinjiro Torii founded the company that would later become Suntory, and begin distilling distinctly Japanese whisky in the Scottish style, in 1924. Torii had hired a young man named Masataka Taketsuru to be his distillery manager. Taketsuru had spent time apprenticing at distilleries in Scotland and had married a Scottish woman, Rita Cowan, while there. As unconventional as their relationship was, the couple flourished, Taketsuru in his role as whisky-maker, and Rita quickly integrating herself into Japanese society.
Suntory whisky became quite successful in the span of 10 years. At the end of that period, Taketsuru and his wife left Suntory to start their own distillery, Nikka. While Torii wanted to create a distinctly Japanese whisky, Taketsuru was more interested in creating something much closer to the Scotch style. Both companies weathered World War II, and in the latter half of the century, each expanded to accommodate their growing success.
For a long time, only a scant few of Suntory's whiskies were available in the US, but recently, there's been small increase in the number of Japanese whiskies available. While similar to Scotch whisky, Japanese whisky has a unique complexity, possibly even a "terroir" all its own, thanks to its subtle differences in production and maturation.
Locally, Ace Spirits in Hopkins and Merwin Liquors are probably the most well stocked retail sources in terms of Japanese whiskies. South Lyndale Liquors is a good choice as well. As far as "by the glass," Japanese whisky is not all that common on restaurant lists. Sushi Fix in Wayzata has a deep list, and the North Loop's Origami has a decent selection as well. Here are eight Japanese whiskies to seek out, from "entry-level" to big splurge:
• Yamazaki 12 year old Single Malt Whisky, ~$60 A great introduction to Japanese whisky, Suntory's Yamazaki 12 year old honors its Scotch-influenced roots while maintaining its own elegant Japanese style by being matured in a combination of American, European, and Mizunara oak casks.
• Nikka Taketsuru 12 year old Blended Malt Whisky, ~$60 A marriage of whiskies from each of Nikka's two distilleries, the more muscular, lightly peated Yoichi, and the lighter, fruitier Miyagikyo. Another well-rounded, excellent introduction to the style.
• Hibiki 12 year old Blended Whisky, ~$60 A blended whisky from Suntory combining grain whisky and single malt whisky, a small percentage of which has been matured in casks previously used to mature the plum spirit Umeshu. Hibiki has been expertly crafted to hold up over ice or in the Japanese "Mizuwara" style with ice and a lot of water.
• Hakushu 12 year old Single Malt Whisky, ~$60 Located in a forest in central Japan, Suntory's large Hakushu distillery creates several styles of whisky. The Hakushu 12 year old is lightly peated and complex beyond its years -- a distinctly Japanese whisky.
• Nikka Coffey Grain, ~$65 The Coffey here refers to the type of still not coffee, there is no coffee. This is a whisky made with corn, which means it has more in common with Bourbon than with Scotch.
• Nikka Yoichi Single Malt 15 year old, ~$100 Nikka's Yoichi distillery is located well north on the island of Hokkaido. The 15 years of maturation create a wonderful balance of sweet and subtly savory flavors.
• Nikka Taketsuru 21 year old Blended Malt Whisky, ~$170 Also a blend of single malts from the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries, a lush, balanced whisky whose long years of maturation add complex spice, wood, and chocolate notes.
• Yamazaki 18 year old Single Malt Whisky, ~$220 The majority of this deeply rich and complex whisky is aged in casks previously used to mature sherry, with a small percentage being aged in Mizunara Oak, a species of oak unique to much of Asia that lends a subtle incense quality during maturation.
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