In 1918, a Japanese scientist named Masataka Taketsuru visited Scotland to take an organic chemistry class and study the art of whisky making. During his stay, he fell in love with the country’s rich and peaty spirit—as well as a beautiful Scottish woman named Rita Cowan, who would later became his wife. Back in Japan, Taketsuru eventually helped open the country’s first whisky distillery, first working for conglomerate Suntory to open Yamazaki, then later—using Rita’s connections with wealthy Japanese—opening his open operation on Japan’s underdeveloped northern island, Hokkaido. In 1940, the first bottle of Nikka was released to the public, joining Yamazaki as a founding pillar of a Japanese whisky industry that, in the year 2015, is exploding on the international scene.
Of course, Japanese whisky has always had its supporters, even before its brilliant star turn over a decade ago. With a flavor profile and body close to the most refined bottles in Scotland—“harmony” is a word that is often used in marketing materials —serious whisky fans have always sought it out. But it wasn’t until last year that the world really took notice. That’s when whisky expert Jim Murray called out the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as a drink of “near incredible genius,” awarding it 97.5 points out of 100 in his 2015 World Whisky Bible. The ranking, unprecedented and shocking, placed a Japanese-made spirit at the top of the list for the first time ever. The press latched on, calling the designation not just historical, but the shame of Scotland.
But in Japan, it was a coming out party of sorts for a both single-malt and blended whiskies that have been produced in small quantities, and governed with strict allocations throughout Europe and the United States. And with Nikka’s June announcement that they would stop releasing whisky with specific age statements —moving towards a non-vintage model due to supply depletion and high demand —bottles like Yoichi 15 and Tsuru 17 may go the way of Pappy Van Winkle, the highly coveted Kentucky bourbon. What that means? If you spot a dusty bottle at your favorite liquor store, snatch it up! Or, order a highball in one of these bars:
Angel’s Share, New York City
Tucked behind a hidden door within the bustling Village Yokocho is this pioneering Japanese cocktail bar that takes its hand-carved ice almost as seriously as its whisky selection. Try one of the ultra rare Yamazakis poured over a giant ice ball.
Bar Goto, New York City
Pegu Club alum Kenta Goto has opened his namesake bar on the Lower East Side with a fine list of cocktails made with East Asian ingredients like shiso or matcha. The Japanese whisky stash is also impressive, and growing by the month.
Bar Jackalope at Seven Grand, Los Angeles
Located in ever-evolving downtown Los Angeles, Seven Grand is one of America’s most-well-stocked whisky bars. Concealed in the back is this bar within a bar, which serves an impressive selection of Japanese whiskey three ways: neat, Japanese Highball (that is, with a lot of ice and some water), or as an Old Fashioned.
Nihon Whisky Lounge, San Francisco
This Mission District izakaya has a menu of more than 500 malt selections from around the world, and allows guests to store their bottle or two in a designated locker. Japanese whisky is of course top of mind, and the bars serves hard-to-find offerings from Nikka and Yamazaki.