I made a big tactical error in my tasting of Japanese whiskeys; one that a Westerner like me can be almost guaranteed to make but which is completely avoidable if one comes to the Whiskeys of Japan as they’d approach a truly great Scotch.
Unlike tasting Bourbon, which expresses the same things as the Scottish and Japanese cousins but in a different, more youthful and less elegant way, Scotch and Japanese spirits have in common an element of soulful contemplation and a striving toward “Oneness” that Bourbon lacks. Put simply, American soul and Scottish anam and Japanese wa are all different but all amount to the heart put into the whiskey and how that affects what’s in the glass.
Nutshell: Time. Time is the key to great Whiskey. All three traditions respect that. But what it means in the glass is different.
Japanese Whiskey: Toki…
Suntory is Japan’s oldest and largest producer of Whiskeys and even though the history of the craft in Japan is far younger than either of the other two, it’s is even more involved with time than Scotch or Bourbon. The basic character of Japan’s culture melds a reverence and love for the past with a ravening spirit of innovation and that’s what Fourth Chief Blender, Shinji Fukuyo, used as his guide for making this literal distillation of the Whiskies and traditions of all three of Suntory’s distilleries: Hakushu, Yamazaki, and Chita. To create the core character of Toki, Fukuyo took the American-oaked freshness of Hakushu, with its signature green apples, melon, wood, bramble, and smoke notes and married it to the older, deeper, corn-fed sweetness and vanilla notes of the Chita heavy-type grains. Adding to these two whiskeys the pears, apples, nutmeg, and cloves of the unique mizunara oak native to Japan and the very signature of the Yamazaki Single-malt and you wind up with…well, something completely different.
Here was my mistake in tasting Japanese whiskeys: I have an American soul with a bit of a Scottish accent. The first whiskeys I ever tasted were single-malt Scotches. I was on a wavelength with them from the git-go. I totally get the Scottish soul that imbues each great Scotch with an indefinable something that connects in the heart just as it rolls across the tongue. In tasting Japanese Whiskeys, I was adhering to my very American tasting rituals; short-cut methodology that you really have to discard if you hope to get into the mysteries of Yamazaki and Hakushu and Hibiki…and Toki. For an American, Toki is the most approachable of the four. It’s bright and expressive and the palate faithfully follows the gorgeous, assertive aromas of flowers, hay, bounteous green apples, and a vivid mix of woods.To that bounty, the tongue adds white pepper, vanilla cream, cantaloupe, fig, grass, and lime leaf notes, all this leading to a finish that delivers aromatic spices, grapefruit rind, and jasmine on a long, slow decay.
My American soul and my hundreds of Scotch tastings led me to believe that I can taste and evaluate beverages within just a few seconds. That will NOT work with Whiskeys like these. Toki is about an unfolding, a blooming, an evolution of flavors and textures. It’s built that way deliberately and that opening up of the Whiskey is a bedrock Japanese value; the idea of patience rewarded with revelation. I finally got that with Toki, after being pretty much a Yankee dipshit when sampling Yamazaki, Hukushu, and Hibiki by themselves. I wish that I could go back now and retaste those three. I suspect the experience would be wildly different. I didn’t even review those when they were sent to me about nine months ago, because I didn’t think there was all that much going on. You’ll notice that, in a search of The Pour Fool, those names produce “Sorry, but nothing matched your search terms“, because the “Come to Jesus” (or, more accurately, “Come to Aizen Myō’ō”) meeting that I lacked to appreciate their virtues apparently came in the box with Toki. Its deceptively light color belies a profound depth of flavors and a genuine expression of Wa that sets this apart from either Scotch or Bourbon (or Canadian or American or Irish or any other type of Whiskey) and demands its own criteria.
So, for me, Toki is a genuine revelation. I’m not under the impression that tasting this and getting, finally, what Japanese spirits are all about makes me an instant expert. Whatever I write about other versions of Japanese booze will, unavoidably, get subjected to some degree of filtering through my American and Scottish habits. But the sheer sense of discovery – the main reason why I continue to work in and learn and write about bottles of liquids with alcohol in them – in Toki is massive and inescapable and something that I heartily recommend to you, IF you’re willing to find yourself a few quiet moments and sit quietly with a wee dram of Toki and clear your mind and allow this lovely elixir to take its slow and measured time in revealing itself. Picture yourself watching a beautiful bird that might just fly away if you make any sudden moves and just let Toki – and any other Japanese Whiskey – happen. I believe firmly that anyone who appreciates fine, thoughtful, beautifully composed spirits of any type will find the core of something wonderful in trying this meditative and subtle stuff. For me, Toki is a game-changer. 98 Points
I love Japanese whiskey.. for some reason it’s much more smooth then American whiskey.. at least that’s my opinion.
No argument there. The Japanese have a weirdly universal cultural aesthetic: they don’t want ANYTHING – from cheese to chocolate to whiskey – to have rough edges. For one of the world’s most adventurous food communities, they want few shocks in their beverages. Their Imperial IPAs are a lot less bitter than ours. They’ll do funky; just taste a few top-tier Sakes for proof of that. But they want their whiskey polished and presentable, which is why I almost never water a Japanese whiskey. They are also, usually, a bit less robust and caramel-dominated than Scotch and certainly Bourbon, letting grace notes like citrus and flowers and stone fruit emerge. I love the complexity of almost all of them. The only one of the Suntorys that left me a bit cold was Hakushu but I may go back and retaste that. And I wasn’t wild about Nikka Coffey Grain, either. Any of the rest I’ve tasted, I would take over most mid-tier American and Scottish whiskeys.
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Interesting, I’ve had very mixed feelings with many Japanese whisky varieties so I may have follow your recommendation here.