It’s a well-worn joke: When it comes to trends, Hawai‘i is five years behind the rest of the world. But the popularity of Japanese whisky is such that bars in Honolulu are struggling to keep their shelves stocked, right alongside their mainland compatriots. “Japanese whisky has exploded in Hawai‘i,” says Kevin Toyama, the lead sommelier at Halekulani.
Not long ago, bartenders here had the opposite problem. Chris Fu, the regional sales manager for Anchor Distilling Company, which handles U.S. distribution for Nikka, one of Japan’s main whisky distillers, says until about four years ago, you couldn’t give the spirit away.
That changed in 2014, when for the first time, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, a go-to resource for connoisseurs, named a Japanese whisky the “best in the world” over contesters from the United States, Canada, and Scotland. By that point, Japanese whiskies had scooped up a handful of awards, but Murray’s proclamation was a watershed moment, comparable to the infamous Judgement of Paris, a blind wine tasting in 1976 at which a chardonnay from Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley beat out several French wines and put California on the winemaking map.
The whisky that won Murray’s highest honor was Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 from Suntory, Japan’s other major distiller. Aged in oloroso sherry barrels, it was, to Murray, a whisky of “near indescribable genius.” The Whisky Exchange sold out of it almost immediately, as did most other purveyors. Distributed solely in Europe, it didn’t even reach America. “Good luck finding a bottle of that,” says Dave Newman, the owner of Pint and Jigger, a popular bar in the Mō‘ili‘ili neighborhood of Honolulu. But finding it is not the problem. A simple Google search produces several online retailers with the 2013 whisky in stock. Its price tag: $3,999.99.
Japanese whisky may be relatively new to American drinkers, but its origins are more than 100 years old. In 1918, unsatisfied with Japanese companies’ rough approximations of the spirit, a young man named Masataka Taketsuru, the son of a traditional sake brewer, traveled to Scotland to study chemistry and apprentice with distillers to learn the art of making “Western liquor.” The notebook Taketsuru kept while in Scotland became the blueprint for Japan’s first distillery, which was built by Suntory under his guidance in the village of Yamazaki in 1924. Taketsuru later left Suntory to found Nikka, which remains the second-largest distiller in Japan.
Although its origins are Scottish, Japanese whisky differs from scotch in two important ways. The first is that Japanese distillers do not trade with one another. In Scotland, distillers often tend to focus on making a distinctive style of whisky, a portion of which is traded with other distillers for blending. In Japan, companies refuse to trade, but because they want to produce blended whiskies, they must make many styles of whisky in-house.
The second difference is in regulation. Those that govern whisky production in Japan are generally more lax than they are in the United States or Scotland. While some producers use this as an opportunity to make low-quality whisky, the majority of them use this flexibility to age their whiskies in a wide variety of casks and barrels, including those made from mizunara, an oak native to Japan. “It gives so much more opportunity to refine flavors,” Newman says.
This variation in production allows Japanese distillers to create bold, unique whiskies that often are more savory than bourbon, but are also highly nuanced and complex, which appeals to bartenders and mixologists. “I also like the fact it’s delicate, so you have to have a gentle hand,” Newman says. “I’m not going to make a Japanese cocktail with Ramazzotti or fernet, like I would with a bourbon.”
In Honolulu, craft cocktails featuring Japanese whisky can be found at a variety of popular watering holes, from Bevy in Kaka‘ako to Lucky Belly in Chinatown. At Pint and Jigger, Newman sticks with a few simple ingredients, many of them inspired by his time in Japan. “A very little bit of yuzu juice works incredibly well with Japanese whisky,” he says.
Today, the Japanese spirit is in such demand that its distillers can’t keep up. Many have removed labels that identify the age of whiskies from bottles, and have developed younger, less expensive blends like Hibiki Harmony (which retails for around $60). Fu says his company is holding onto much of its inventory, meting it out slowly.
This scarcity of Japanese whisky has only ratcheted up the fervor. Select bottles sell for more than $130,000, while more reasonable bottles barely reach liquor store shelves before they’re snatched up. Toyama, Halekulani’s sommelier, says he relies on friends traveling to Japan to bring him bottles of his favorites, and even there, the search sometimes requires a special trip out to the countryside, as major cities often sell out first. He keeps Halekulani stocked with a selection of the finest Japanese whiskies, like Nikka’s Taketsuru Single Malt 21 Year, and a bottle of single malt from a special series by Chichibu, one of Japan’s smaller craft distilleries.
While Japanese whisky is renowned for its craft, the spirit is also big business, and companies like Suntory are beginning to dominate the global industry. In 2014, the distiller bought the company that makes Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Knob Creek for a cool $16 billion. And few expect the demand for Japanese whisky to taper anytime soon. On the contrary, Newman says, “I don’t think we’ve even reached the pinnacle yet.”
Kevin Toyama, the lead sommelier at Halekulani.
Japanese whisky has a history reaching back more than a century.
An impressive display of drink options available at the Halekulani showcase the richness of the worldly whisky trend.
Experts in their fields, Chris Fu, Dave Newman, and Kevin Toyama (from left to right) discuss the boom in Japanese whiskies at L’Aperitif at La Mer.