Japanese whisky is way too precious for anything besides a neat pour, right? Absolutely not.
“Miyamoto-san would have no issue if a bartender made a cocktail with any of our whiskies,” says Johnnie Mundell, Suntory’s U.S. ambassador, in reference to his global counterpart and former Yamazaki distillery manager Mike Miyamoto.
However, supply and price are two other issues entirely. Together, these factors likely prohibit many such cocktails from being created. But from neat drams to cocktails and everything in between, there is a myriad of ways to enjoy and appreciate the best of Japanese whisky.
The Hand-Carved Ice Sphere
Large ice spheres were of course first introduced to slow dilution. However, the art of hand-carving crystal clear ice has been turned into a perfected art in Japan.
Hidetsugu Ueno carving ice at Bar High Five / Photo Credit: Bar High Five
“This kind of touch wouldn’t be achieved by a machine,” Miyamoto says, as Mundell wields an ice carving knife—specially designed in collaboration with Hidetsugu Ueno of Tokyo’s Bar High Five. He shaves a cube down into a sphere bit by bit as if peeling a potato.
“You just have to be systematic about taking off the points,” Mundell says. The result in your glass is the “reflected beauty” of the whisky itself.
The rich, oily qualities of Yamazaki 12 work perfectly with a bit of chill from an ice sphere.
Japanese whisky and highballs go hand in hand. But while the highball is a staple of Japanese drinking culture, it’s only just now really taking off with American drinkers.
Suntory Toki Highball / Photo Credit: Suntory
“We’re trying to turn America into a highball culture,” Mundell says. And why not? Light and refreshing, and generally lower proof than other cocktails, highballs can be either session drinks or mealtime companions, or just about anything else.
When made correctly, they’ll also highlight the flavor of a whisky rather than mask it. Suntory Toki shines best in such a presentation, as the green fruits of its component Hakushu malt whisky, what Miyamoto says is, “a very important whisky in Toki, the key malt,” come to life, bubbling to the foreground.
The release of Suntory Toki has helped spur on highball culture in the U.S., but it’s also accomplished another important objective—”Getting whisky back into bartenders’ hands,” Mundell says. Which, as mentioned at the top, supply and price have been preventing. Toki allows bartenders to let their imaginations run wild and to put Japanese whisky to use in a limitless array of cocktails.
Try the Summer in Kyoto:
-1.5 ounces Suntory Toki
-1 ounce matcha-infused Dolin Dry
-.25 ounce Velvet Falernum
Stirred and served up. Garnish with an expressed lemon peel and a piece of charred candied cantaloupe.
Oyuwari is a specific way of serving whisky with hot water, though the practice is also common in Japan with shochu.
“It’s doing the same thing as carbonation,” Mundell says. “It blossoms. It’s a very natural partner, and opposite, of the highball.”
In other words, the temperature change and dilution work together to transform the whisky, opening it up and taking it into a new direction.
“Oyuwari makes flavor more distinctive,” Miyamoto says. Starting with a bold single malt isn’t the correct approach then. Instead, the key is start with a blended whisky offering a delicate but complex profile.
That makes Hibiki Japanese Harmony an ideal partner for a serve in a teacup with several ounces of hot water, and nothing else but a bit of mint. This differs, therefore, from a hot toddy. “The difference is that with oyuwari, we don’t put anything else besides hot water,” Miyamoto says. It’s not a cocktail, simply a warm showcase of the whisky itself.
The versatility of Japanese whisky is a wonderful thing, but let’s be real, some offerings are simply best enjoyed neat. Such is the case with the Yamazaki 18 Year Mizunara Cask, released in 2017. Sultry and spicy, with sandalwood and incense, melons and green apples, and both black and white pepper, the complexity and depth of flavor speak for themselves in such a dram.
There’s a Japanese whisky, and a specific presentation, for every occasion.
Ready to try some Japanese whisky?