The reach for perfection is all encompassing in Japan. There, it feels realised. For those of us who travel to bars and distilleries around the world, it can be tough to be wowed. But then you visit Japan. In countless Tokyo bars - and around the country - obsessive collections of rare and discontinued bottles exist alongside hand-cut ice and impeccable vintage glassware. Not content to merely serve great spirits, Japan creates spectacular whiskies, routinely winning awards for best in the world, over and alongside Scotch. As with Japanese taste in general, a sense of balance upholds whiskies from the most well known producers, starting with the distilleries under Suntory (now Beam Suntory) and Nikka.
As a whisky lover, it wasn't difficult for me to fall in love with Japanese whiskies over the past decade as they made their way to the United States, though I initially bemoaned how few were imported. Thankfully, as more imports trickled in, friends brought back rare bottles only available in Japan so I was able to taste a range of producers and get hooked on cult favourites like Chichibu. Visiting Japan's bars and distilleries, it's impossible not to be impressed by their precision and mastery. And for Scotch aficionados, the collections of whiskies found in many of Tokyo and Kyoto's top whisky bars is astounding, beyond what I saw in even the most extensive bars in Scotland.
Japan's first commercial distillery, Yamazaki, was founded in 1923 by Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii. Instrumental in its launch was distiller Masataka Taketsuru, widely considered the father of Japanese whisky. Taketsuru studied Scotch whisky distilling in Scotland, married a Scottish woman, Jessie Roberta Cowan (nicknamed Rita), brought back whisky distillation to Japan and went on to found Yoichi distillery and its parent company, Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. This fall, a new Japanese TV series, Massan (Rita's nickname for Taketsuru), just launched as a drama on the distiller's life and his romance with Rita.
Given its roots, Japanese whisky style draws directly from and is most akin to Scotch, with a malt barley base, similar production and blending methods, and, occasionally, a touch of peat. But over the past century, Japan has developed its own style, with balance and harmony its signatures. In the case of the two largest companies, Suntory and Nikka, the whiskies gain unique taste profiles from coveted Japanese mizunara oak. This oak is often used to finish aging a whisky after it has first aged in American and sherry casks, adding notes that may run along subtle floral, vanilla, spice and fresh fruit lines.
Both Suntory distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu (where they also produce Suntory's premium blended Hibiki whisky) impart complexity to their whiskies not only in blending but by varying woods and cask sizes, from smaller American oak barrels to hogshead, puncheon, sherry butt and Japanese oak casks. In addition, they don't use temperature control in aging their whiskies. The natural climate of the locations, whether humidity or crisp, cool air, influences the taste. Hakushu, as a lightly-peated whisky, is a Japanese rarity, offering a softer contrast to heavily-peated Islay Scotches.
Visiting the original Japanese whisky distillery, Yamazaki, a short train ride from the enchanting, ancient city of Kyoto, I am impressed by the friendly staff and charmed by a lush Japanese garden hidden behind the distillery next to an ancient shrine on public property - an oasis for employees. The gentle whispers of the bamboo forest lining the grounds imbue an air of mystery to what could be just another distillery plant.
In their guest tasting room, Yamazaki's whisky library of over 7,000 symmetrically-aligned bottles is impressive, showing off Suntory whiskies through the decades but also Scotch, American, Irish whiskies. One can stroll through the library, take an English audio tour around the distillery and taste whiskies in the tasting rooms at both Yamazaki and Hakushu, the latter a little over two hours west of Tokyo by train.
The other Japanese whisky great, Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., has two distilleries producing everything from their excellent Yoichi single malts to Nikka Taketsuru whiskies (named after the man himself). Surrounded by mountains, Yoichi distillery is about an hour and a half west of the city of Sapporo (famous for the beer), on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido. Nikka's second distillery, Miyagikyo, is near Sendai City in Northern Japan, notably marked by two rivers.
While Nikka and Suntory have been the main producers imported internationally, there are other Japanese distilleries, including cult favourite, beloved Chichibu Distillery. Chichibu started bottling precious 'juice' from distiller Ichiro Akuto's grandfather's now-closed Hanyu Distillery, which whisky aficionados go crazy for - bottles which are now nearly impossible to find. Recently, Ichiro began releasing his first whiskies produced in the Chichibu distillery, all strong entrants in the Japanese whisky category.
Japan's distilleries have a different feel than those in the rest of the world, marked by almost painstaking Japanese hospitality and exactitude. You'll find the same spirit in Japan's best bars, unlike any I've visited anywhere in the world. The cutting edge of cocktail creativity isn't happening here and often cocktails play soft and subtle, as with the ubiquitous Highball (whisky and soda), which is a staple for the Japanese.
Pours of 20-50 Years Old whiskies, many from now-shuttered Japanese or Scotch distilleries, would rarely be found elsewhere and even if they were, would easily cost ten times as much. I found many such rarities in Kyoto and Tokyo at an average of £11-15 a pour.
Whisky lovers would do well to add Japan to their bucket list. Though that famous Japanese reserve and an obvious preference to title and status can be intimidating, once a kinship is established generosity and service are unsurpassed. As the last 'domo arigato' is uttered, a bartender walks you to the door from a bar hidden in an endless stream of highrises. They escort you to the street, bowing and thanking you again. As you head down the block, you glance back and realise they are still there, bowing in thanks and respect.
Tokyo Whisky Bars
Shot Bar Zoetrope
Film and whisky buffs will be in heaven at Zoetrope where owner Atsushi Horigami showcases his impressive pages-long book of movie soundtracks and sci fi-heavy movie memorabilia with classic films projecting on the back wall, alongside an unreal collection of Japanese whisky, Scotch, American whisky and beyond. This is the place for those impossible-to-find Ichiro Malt Card whiskies and rare Chichibu bottlings at reasonably priced pours.
1 Chome-6-8 Yurakucho, Chiyoda, Tokyo 100-0006
Harder to find and without a website (yes, the spelling of the name is correct), this tiny bar is not much bigger than a closet but equipped with many rare Japanese whisky and Scotch bottles behind (and lined across) the bar. The kindly owner walks you through treasures like old bottles of now-defunct Karuizawa Japanese whisky and 1980s Mars single malt from the Shinsyu Distillery.
Cask Strength (also called Cask) is the more expensive of the listed bars due to a 1,000 yen cover charge plus a 10 per cent service charge. But this enchanting basement bar, through a castle-like turret and stone hallway, is a must-stop for whisky aficionados. Here you might sample a rare 8 Years Old Glen Mhor Scotch from 1980 or a stunning pour of 1989 Karuizawa Japanese whisky, a now closed distillery.
Park Hotel Tokyo: The Society
Up on the 25th floor in the Park Hotel next to the Shiodome Tower, The Society is not just any hotel bar. Besides lovely cocktails from bar manager Kouji Nanmoku, it is home to a collection of Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) whiskies, a rare joy outside of the private, members-only society in Scotland. They have discounted pricing for members but everything is available by the pour,
The bartenders here know their whisky and with some communication efforts, they can recommend pours (like Mars Maltage Komagatake 10 Years Old single malt) and even liquor shops around Tokyo to find Japanese whiskies to take home. This is an ideal place to mingle with locals.
• Yamazaki Osaka Prefecture
• Hakushu Yamanashi Prefecture
• Miyagikyo Miyagi Prefecture
• Yoichi Island of Hokkaido
• Chichibu Saitama Prefecture
• Fuji Gotemba (owned by Kirin) Shizuoka Prefecture
• Mars Shinshu (owned by Hombo) Nagano Prefecture
• White Oak Hyogo Prefecture
Kyoto Whisky Bars
If there's one bar not to miss in Kyoto, it's this one (look for the sign of an apple from the street below). Even better, it's purportedly the largest Calvados selection of any bar in the world with bar manager Hiroyuki Takayama an official Calvados ambassador. The classy space houses an impressive range of whiskies and Calvados dating back to the 1800s.
Bar Rocking Chair
Though this is easily the best cocktail bar in Kyoto, it's also a respite for a wide range of spirits. You'll find amaro and gin you won't often see around town but half the bar is whisky alone. With a faux fireplace and a few rocking chairs, the elegant space is an inviting one in which to linger.
If you can get past the attitude behind the bar, K6 has a strong Scotch and Japanese whisky selection, including rarities like a 1985 Linkwood Scotch (a distillery that closed not long after this bottling) or The Perfume by Bowmore, a special floral whisky distilled in 1987.