The World Whiskies Awards, which involve a three-stage blind tasting, are only in their second year, but they’ve already become the benchmark by which aspiring whiskies are judged. So this spring, when Japanese distilleries won among single malts (Yoichi twenty-year-old) and blends (Suntory Hibiki thirty-year-old), it caused quite a stir.
Japan’s whisky has been growing in reputation for years, and some beauties can be found at the premium end. The most exciting aspect is the development of a national flavor characteristic—a rooty, mushroomy quality that you find in no other whisky. Some say it is umami, the extra flavor perception, or fifth taste, identified in Japanese food.
If the country’s distilleries have a problem, it’s that they don’t work together for the common good: The culture dictates that rival companies remain rivals. Which makes Ginkgo, the latest Japanese sensation, all the more intriguing. Ginkgo is neither a single malt nor a blend but a blended malt—a mixture from competing distilleries. Be warned that Ginkgo is very hard to find ($93; try contacting onedrinks.co.uk directly), but it’s worth the effort: At the 2007 whisky-pages.com awards, it was named the best in the non-Scotch category. The nose is a pleasing mix of aromatics and caramel—and what a taste! The distinctive Japanese earthiness is first, then an appealing bitter fruit rush with a pepper spice finish. They say it suits sushi, too.