Eight Asian whiskies you need to know
Not too long ago, the Asian whisky scene — at least from the West’s perspective — was equal parts rumour and curiosity. Apart from Suntory’s Japanese bottlings, very little was available elsewhere, and whiskyphiles didn’t seem to care. When there are dozens of worthy drams to try from each region of Scotland, the thinking seemed to be, “who needs anything else?”
It’s amazing how fast things change. World whisky, as its known, is the exciting new frontier of the whisky market. Traditional Scotch whiskies are booming in Asia, and in a bit of cultural exchange, some of their brands are starting to pop up on liquor-store shelves in the West and at spirits challenges, where Asian whiskies have been taking home plenty of awards the last several years. The trickle of Asian whiskies has yet to become a flood, but there’s still plenty to try.
These eight whiskies will give you a good idea of how distinctive, disparate, and delicious Asian whiskies can be.
It may surprise you to know that some of the best-selling spirits in the world are whiskies made in India for the Indian market. There are two reasons non-Indians have probably never heard of brands like Officer’s Choice or Old Tavern. First, they don’t adhere to the general whisky-making standards enforced throughout the better-known whisky-producing countries. And second, they have generally been regarded as pretty lousy.
For many years, Amrut was the lone Indian whisky available in the rest of the world — not that many noticed. But more imbibers are discovering that Amrut makes some very good whisky. The best of the lot is Fusion, which uses both Scottish peated malt and homegrown Indian barley that are distilled separately and then blended in ex-bourbon casks.
It’s a little sweet, a little smoky, and a little bitter, with notes of coffee, buttery biscuits, orange marmalade, and toffee predominating; there is even a little banana and coconut in the background. Sure, it’s not 100 per cent Indian barley, but with a whisky as good as Fusion, who cares? (amrutwhisky.co.uk)
Paul John Brilliance
While Amrut opened the door for Indian whiskies at least a crack, Paul John, based in Goa, hopes to let a little more daylight in. Brilliance is a no-age-statement whisky, and it tastes pretty young, with flavours bouncing in and out all over the place — everything from citrus and peach to vanilla and hints of anise.
It’s a fun ride, though, and it’s anchored by leathery undercurrents and lots of tingling cinnamon spice. Brilliance is a very enjoyable dram — no need for the “for an Indian whisky” suffix — that promises big things from the brand. (pauljohnwhisky.com)
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
Suntory, Hibiki’s parent company, has long created blends that make even the staunchest single-malt snobs sigh with delight. It has also mastered the art of the no-age-statement whisky — the other bane of whiskyphiles’ existence. Where many distilleries created unbalanced NAS blends to stretch depleted aged whiskies, Hibiki Japanese Harmony lives up to its name.
Using a blend of 10 differently aged malt and grain whiskies that are aged in sherry casks, ex-bourbon barrels, and Japanese Mizunara oak, this is a delicate flower of a whisky, much like the softer Speyside malts. It is sweet and rich, with notes of ripe melon, honey, and lychee, along with a surprising touch of smoke. The finish unfolds into hints of oak and cinnamon spice.
Many Japanese whiskies are meant to be drunk in highballs, but this beauty needs to be savored neat. (whisky.suntory.com)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu On The Way
One of the most exciting brands in the whisky universe, Ichiro Akuto makes whiskies (known as Ichiro’s Malts) at a tiny distillery with two small pot stills in the village of Chichibu. Ichiro’s grandfather was a sake brewer who also distilled whisky on the side. The family had to sell off the distillery in 2000, but Ichiro bought up the remaining stocks of whisky and released them in a series (known as the Card series for the playing card illustrated on each label) that took the Japanese whisky market by storm, becoming coveted collectors’ items that fetch thousands on the secondary market.
He started distilling his own whisky in 2008, and while his bottlings are obviously young, they are not immature. They are more like young athletes who are already great but still haven’t entered their prime.
Because of the distillery’s small size, bottlings are generally quite limited. One of the easier ones to find, and thankfully also one of the best, is On The Way, a blend of whiskies aged in ex-bourbon barrels and Japanese Mizunara oak, which lends a distinct spicy flavor to the finished product.
Sweet notes of pear and marzipan mix with a dry earthiness and a peppery spice that culminates in a long, dry finish. Owing perhaps to its young age, there is a fair amount of heat that some whiskyphiles will love, and others will want to douse with a splash of water. Either way, it is delicious, and as successive bottles employ older whiskies, it will only get better.
Nikka Coffey Grain
Nikka played second fiddle to Suntory in the Japanese whisky world for years, even though the man who founded the company, Masataka Taketsura, also helped establish Suntory. In recent years, however, the brand has gotten more attention — both because it has become more widely available and because the rising tide of Japanese whisky lifts all boats. And of course, let’s not forget that its whiskies are excellent, such as its classic Taketsura Pure Malt.
Grain whisky — the milder stuff that makes up the lion’s share of blended whiskies, as opposed to more flavorful single malts — has become a bit of a trend in the last couple of years. Nikka Coffey Grain, named for the type of still in which it is distilled (also known as a column still), is one of the only grain whiskies that is as compelling as the best single malts.
Because it is distilled to a higher proof than single malts, it has a lighter flavor, with vanilla, melon, and hints of lemony citrus coming to the fore before the finish cranks up the spice. It’s a smooth, delicious, and addictive dram that’s a great change of pace from the usual malts. (nikka.com)
Yamazaki 18 Year Old
This is to Japanese whisky what, say, the Macallan 18 Year Old is to Scotch single malts — the gold standard, the symbol of quality, the one everyone knows and everyone wants.
Unfortunately, when Japanese whiskies exploded in popularity a few years ago, Yamazaki also became the Japanese equivalent of Pappy Van Winkle — almost impossible to find and priced astronomically high when you can find it. Should you decide to take up the hunt, an outstanding whisky awaits.
The Yamazaki 18 Year Old is viscous and heavy, blanketing the tongue with notes of jam-like dark fruit, slightly bitter tea and dark chocolate, dry char and hints of smoke, and an earthy cereal flavor. The disparate flavours combine to create a whisky inspired by Scotland that truly stands apart. (whisky.suntory.com)
Kavalan Ex-Bourbon Cask
Taiwan, with its scorching temperatures and soupy humidity, seems like a better place for maturing rum than whisky. But after several years of trial and error, Kavalan in the county of Yilan became the first Taiwanese whisky distillery.
Kavalan really gained international recognition in 2013, when Whisky Advocate magazine named its Ex-Bourbon Cask expression the World Whisky of the Year. One taste of this cask-strength beauty makes it clear that the praise is deserved. The heat and humidity of Taiwan mature Kavalan’s whiskies in a mere four to six years, but you would never know by tasting it.
Ex-Bourbon Cask is mature and fully rounded, bursting with notes of vanilla, honey, pineapple, coconut, and lots of tingly spice. Running at 55 to 60 per cent alcohol by volume (proof varies slightly with single-cask whiskies), it’s pretty powerful, but it’s smooth and balanced enough to render water an option rather than a necessity. (kavalanwhisky.com)
Kavalan Vinho Barrique
Kavalan experiments with a number of different cask finishes, and Vinho Barrique is perhaps the most interesting. It is aged from start to finish in American oak casks that have formerly held wine before being toasted and re-charred in-house.
It starts out big and fruity, with massive plum, cherry, and ripe melon notes, but it also has a refreshing acidity that keeps it from cloying sweetness, along with deep tannic and spicy notes.
A whisky this rich and sweet needs to be at cask strength to work, and work it does; water is absolutely not required or needed here. Truly, it is an amazing, groundbreaking whisky. (kavalanwhisky.com)