Watch Out Scotland and Kentucky: Make Room for Asian Whisky

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

A few years ago, while attending my first Whiskyfest in San Francisco, I sat in on what was billed as a great whisk(e)y debate between producers of the two dominant schools of the spirit.

There were the malted-barley based whiskies from Scotland, and the corn and rye-based whiskies from Kentucky. But as I wrote in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, there's another approach to whisky that's coming on strong: the spirits being made in Asia, particularly (but not exclusively) Japan.

Suntory and its rival, Nikka, are the dominant whisky distillers in Japan, and when they began producing the spirit in the 1920s and '30s—Suntory's distiller, Masataka Taketsuru, left the company to form Nikka in 1934—it was essentially a Scottish clone.

That's been the way Japanese whisky has been viewed for much of its history, somewhat undeservedly. While Japanese distillers continue to produce the spirit using a base of malted barley, other steps in the production and aging process—ranging from the type of containers used to ferment the "wash," to the type of wood used in the barrels that hold the maturing liquor—are quite different from the standards being used by Scottish distillers.

The Suntory-produced Yamazaki Single Malt, for example, is fermented in wooden vats rather than stainless steel, and is aged in barrels made from several varieties of wood, including not only used bourbon and sherry casks (both familiar components in the aging of scotch whisky) but in barrels made from Japanese mizunara oak, which lends a dry, savory edge to the finished whisky.

Suntory's whiskies have been sporadically available in the U.S., but recently Yamazaki has made a concerted effort to expand its reach. They have a 10-year-old single malt, comparable in flavor to the softly honeyed Speyside whiskies, that's available in larger markets. Their spectacular 18-year-old single malt is also earning a lot of fans in the whisky world. And a 12-year-old Hibiki blended whisky, which incorporates used plum-liqueur barrels in its aging process, entered the American market last year to general acclaim.

Last month the whisky aisle became even more geographically diverse with the appearance of Amrut, a single-malt from Bangalore that comes in fresh from its "Fusion" expression being named one of the world's best whiskies in Jim Murray's 2010 Whisky Bible.

Meanwhile, Nikka is watching the U.S. market carefully with ideas of releasing its whisky possibly later this year or in 2011, and fans of Kavalan, a whisky made in Taiwan, are hoping to debut in the U.S. in the near future, as well.

Have you tried any of these (or other) Asian whiskies during your travels? Or found a pleasing dram that's already here in the U.S.? Let's hear your favorites.