Eastern Spirit: In Praise of Japanese “Scotch Style” Whiskeys

By Marne Setton

Published on March 23, 2011

For a Scotch lover like me, the idea of a "Scotch" that comes not from Speyside but from Japan takes some getting used to. The truth is, though they can't technically be called Scotch unless produced in Scotland, Japanese "scotch style" whiskeys have been made for 87 years—with some noteworthy differences. Suntory, Japan's preeminent spirits maker (and the only one who imports whiskeys to the U.S.), ages its whiskeys in Spanish sherry and American white oak casks, as well as barrels made of mizunara, a rare Japanese oak that imparts an aroma akin to sandalwood. When I sample a dram of Suntory's Yamazaki Single Malt 12-Year-Old Whisky ($43), that herbaceous scent mingles with the aroma of honeyed vanilla. The result is a unique and nuanced drink. Both the 12-year-old and the Yamazaki Single Malt 18-Year-Old Whisky ($120) are as hearty, rich, and smoky as those from Scotland's Speyside, but—in part because of that native oak— I find them even more intriguing. With notes of black cherry, white pepper, and fragrant wood, the round, subtle 12-year-old is a great foil for sushi. The complex 18-year-old tastes of brown butter and wet earth, with a dry, languid finish. Try it with beef or chocolate. A portion of Suntory's Hibiki 12-Year-Old Blended Whisky ($65), a grain-and-malt blend of 30 different whiskeys including Yamazaki, is aged in old umeshu (plum brandy) casks for a flavor redolent of stone fruit. Creamy and mellow with a clean, sweet finish, this easy-drinking whiskey pairs well with almost any food.


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