In Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's 2003 cinematic homage to anomie, Bill Murray's character, Bob Harris, travels to Japan and submits to a kind of humiliation by whiskey as the spokesman for Suntory spirits. He endures various slights by pompous art directors, his eyes streaked with mascara and his face bearing enough pancake makeup to make a clown blush, all of which culminates in the immortal tagline, "For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."
In L.A. right now, in tumblers neat and, increasingly, in cocktails, it's Suntory time. All over the city, Japanese whiskey is creeping into a guest role on cocktail menus, in some cases supplanting the whiskey it plainly pays homage to, scotch. One of Sam Ross' more popular Negroni variations at Hinoki & the Bird involves Suntory's Hakushu whiskey, Maurin Quina (the infamous French aperitif with the green imp on the label) and chocolate bitters for a smoky cocktail he calls the Harajuku. Both Seven Grand and Lukshon have employed Japanese whiskies in their cocktail programs, Seven Grand in the popular Shimamoto Sour, and Lukshon in its Fujian Cure.
Japan's whiskey traditions begin with the journey of a young exchange student, Masataka Taketsuru, who traveled to Scotland in the years following World War I to study chemistry in Glasgow before falling under the spell of scotch. Taketsuru worked in a number of distilleries and took copious notes before returning to his native country in 1920. Three years later, he teamed up with Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory, to establish the first commercial whiskey distillery, Yamazaki, the cornerstone of Suntory's whiskey portfolio. Ten years later, Taketsuru founded his own distillery, which survives to this day as Nikka (San Francisco's Anchor Distilling Company now imports two whiskies from Nikka, Yoichi Single Malt 15-Year and Taketsuru Pure Malt 12-Year).
The Japanese have been making whiskey in an array of styles for more than a century, though most of these are an homage to Scotch whisky in one form or another. There are peaty styles, fruity styles and some styles that defy easy categorization because of the use of oak called Mizunara from Japanese forests, which imparts a uniquely spicy finish.
Take the Hibiki 12-Year, for example, one of the better known in this country (and the very bottling that Bob Harris was shilling in his Japanese commercial). A blend of about two dozen whiskies, it is among the most elusive and complex whiskies I've had, with scents of grain and sweetcorn and a creamy, oily texture that is by turns savory and sweet.
The 12-Year Hakushu most resembles a Highland malt, where the peat accents hang in the background while gorgeous, pristine fruit elements, apple and pear, hold sway. The 12-Year Yamazaki Single Malt is perhaps a bit creamier and smokier, with a subtle, wispy peatiness that lingers on the finish; at about $55, it's the least expensive, the most approachable and the one you're most likely to find in a cocktail.
For me, the Nikka whiskies are considerably more challenging and complex, the 12-Year Taketsuru Pure Malt as smoky as Laphroaig Scotch, with oily flavors of olive and peat, a hint of nuttiness from oak mollifying the long finish. But perhaps the most compelling of those currently imported is the 15-Year Yoichi Single Malt, which manages to leaven a powerfully smoky set of flavors with soft, creamy oak character that feels warm and broad in the mouth.
In all cases, it's hard not to read into the flavor profile a kind of purity of expression that seems to reflect on the culture at large.
As for cocktails, there is such detail in the palate flavors of these whiskies that they've come to be a favorite at more progressive cocktail establishments. Japanese whiskey forms the foundation of Giovanni Martinez's signature drink at Sadie in Hollywood, the Kentucky Ninja. There he combines bourbon and Yamazaki 12-Year, finishing it with lemon juice and lavender honey in an unusually smoky sour. "It has a wonderful balance of flavors," Martinez explains, "and brings just enough of a smoky backbone to the drink without overpowering it."
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Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.