Asia’s Love Affair with Japanese Whiskies Part 2: An Exploration of the Asian Palate
This editorial is the second of a 2-part series on Asia's Love Affair with Japanese Whiskies. Read the first part here.
Why are Japanese whiskies so popular in Asia?
While the massive popularity and preference for Japanese whisky in Asia may be a puzzle to some, at the heart of the issue, it comes right down to palate.
While it’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is, Japanese whiskies generally differ from their Scotch counterparts in terms of texture, flavor profile, complexity and mildness.
Japanese whiskies tend to be smoother, more complex, milder and more delicate, as well as tending towards a more floral and fruity dimension.
This is as opposed to Scotch whisky’s smokier, rougher, heavier profiles that tend towards the more spicy, herbaceous, oily side of things.
Scotch whiskies are designed to follow their distillery’s distinctiveness making them more one-dimensional but also more characteristic of the distillery they come from.
It’s almost comparable to the contrast between tea and coffee.
As incongruous as this jarring image we keep getting in some family Whatsapp chat. (Source: Amazon (LOL))
Yet, it is so uniquely designed for the Asian palate. After all, we enjoy tea, wine and Haagen Daz versus Ben and Jerry’s. Why’s that?
Well the fact is, Asians appreciate refinement, elegance, complexity, more delicate flavors like flowers and fruits. Just look at our gift baskets!
Subtlety is in our blood and we like our whiskies the same way. Slowly unveiling itself to us, blossoming and taking us along its multi-dimensional nature, all while preserving its smoothness and staying refreshing.
Much of this difference can be broken down into how Japanese whisky is made and what goes into it. After all it is a reflection of the environment it comes from.
A stable of distilleries, each fitted with numerous stills for a variety of whisky styles, allows Japanese drinks giants Suntory and Nikka to focus on blending a smooth and complex whisky. (Source: Gear Patrol)
Difference #1: Emphasis on Blending
The smooth and more complex flavor profiles come down to the blending used to combine a huge variety of styles made across Suntory or Nikka’s stable of distilleries, with each distillery having multiple distilling stills that each are able to produce a different style.
This allows a combination of different ages of whisky to balance out the oak-iness of older whisky versus the sharpness of younger whiskies, or whiskies aged in different casks, from Spanish oak, Bourbon, Wine casks, and then to Japan’s own local Mizunara casks.
The ability to blend all of these allows Japanese distillers to smoothen out the whisky’s edges and balance out juxtaposing flavor profiles, to give a uniquely smooth yet highly complex whisky.
Mount Fuji. Notice how you don’t see this in Europe? Yeah that’s why your Japanese whisky tastes different. I’m kidding it’s the climate. (Source: Google Earth)
Difference #2: The Natural Climate
Other factors such as Japan’s distilleries being situated in higher geographical altitudes also contributed to the flavor of the whisky. Say whut?? You must be joking.
Well no, these higher elevated distilleries also meant lower atmospheric pressure.
What does that have to do with anything?
So as physics goes, that means that boiling points also decrease which allows the whisky to keep its flavor and aromatics, which come from a range of chemicals brought about during the fermentation and distillation process, from esters to phenols (same stuff you find in perfumes) that boil off at room temperature that gives the nose of the whisky.
The thing about having a low boiling point is that the toxins (stop that ~whisky is my poison ~ nonsense) that are a byproduct of the fermentation process are more easily and naturally removed during distillation as they are separated from the alcohol (the good stuff we want) more easily.
This reduces the need for repeated distillation that inevitably removes a good amount of esters and phenols that provide the whisky’s nose. Keep distilling and it’s just gonna smell like hand sanitizer.
Taking a little detour to Taiwan, where distilleries like Kavalan and Nantou (or Omar) resides, the natural climate also has a bearing where temperatures soar during summer and causes a good deal of evaporation to occur as whisky casks age.
This inevitably drains reserves and hence it’s why Taiwanese distilleries struggle to bring any aged whisky to market. This in turn typically gives them a higher alcoholic content and a sharper more intense flavor profile despite not being aged significantly.
This is perhaps Taiwanese whisky’s claim to fame where their highly aromatic spicy nature has found many fans across Asia. Similarly Japanese whiskies are also subject to faster maturation timelines and hence tend to taste a lot older than they really are and also much more refined.
Pragmatically, this allows us to get cheaper whiskies (less storage costs) that taste a lot more “expensive” than they really are. Again showcasing how the natural climate affects the whisky and why Japanese whiskies are so popular in the region.
Yamazaki’s location was chosen because it was near the supposedly legendary Minase Spring which supposedly was the place to be if you were a tea or sake master. (Source: Yamazaki)
Difference #3: The Ingredients, Duh!
What may surprise you is that the bulk of whiskies made in Japan actually come from barley (typically malted) imported from Scotland. Gasp!
Much of why this is possible is because of Japan’s much laxer laws on what constitutes Japanese whiskies (a story for another time).
You might be wondering then, well what the heck is Japanese about Japanese whisky?
For one, the water that goes into the whisky making process comes naturally from springs in Japan. Yamazaki location was chosen in large part because it was near a spring famed for its purity, known as Minase, for the Minase Palace located nearby. It was a spring that was so loved by tea masters and sake makers, that it only made sense for Japan’s most famed distillery to share its crystal clear waters.
Other distilleries like Hakushu, are built at the base of a mountain, surrounded by a thriving rainforest, with which it gets its waters from. These highly pure mineral rich waters form the body of the whisky and so its intuitive that it affects the final texture of the whisky, allowing it to be highly smooth, refined and delicate.
This is way too dramatic, the water is pure but come on. That’s some anti-ageing stuff right there. (Source: Fortune)
Some Japanese whiskies are also filtered by local bamboo rather than charcoal (used by American distillers), which is able to further ensure smoothness of the blend, all of which leaves the stage clear for the complex flavors to heighten and showcase themselves.
The yeast used in fermentation is also unique to Japanese distillers, with Suntory even creating their own strain, suntoryeus lactobacillus. The yeast affects not just the yield of the alcohol produced, but also the phenols and esters produced along the way. The specific strain of yeast used is selected to produce floral and more fruity profiles catered to the Asian palate.
Looks pretty curvy to me. (Source: Pinterest)
Some of the casks used by Japanese distillers are also unique to Japan, most famously the Mizunara casks. These are casks made of Japanese oak rather than the European or American oaks favored by Scotch distillers.
The Mizunara cask is itself a wonder, as it takes a Japanese oak some 200 years before it can be used as casks due to the severe warping that it undergoes as it grows.
Yet these casks are able to impart a musky flavor commonly described as shrine incense, how typical of the Japanese to make everything so zen.
Mizunara casks are also associated with a coconut and citrus-y flavor profile.
As you can start to piece together, while the barley might come from Scotland, the Japanese have truly created something of their own by dedicating a huge amount of effort to purifying and cleaning the “base” of the whisky.
This is so that it can best take on not just unique local flavors but also be so refined that it is able to bring out and highlight the wonderfully yet highly delicate complex flavors brought about through blending.
It’s almost like ensuring such a clean sheet of canvas that you are able to begin seeing the minute textures of the pulp intertwined.
These are the three main distinctive reasons why Japanese whiskies are able to boast the unique flavors that they possess and remain distinctively different from their Scotch mentors.
And this my friends is why Asia is in love with Japanese whiskies.
Now when you see someone raving about that damned bottle of Japanese whisky with some unreadable ink characters on the label, you at least know why the fool has gone mad. And just maybe, this time, you wanna join in the madness.
Bonus! What are some Japanese whiskies to start with?
You wanna look like you know what you’re doing but you don’t wanna pay for it.
- Hibiki Harmony
- Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve
- Taketsuru Pure Malt 2020
- Nikka Coffey Grain/Malt
- Mars Cosmo Manzanilla
Alright alright you got some cash you wanna blow and you’re all experiences are priceless ~
- Yamazaki 12 Years Old
- Hibiki 17 Years Old (I mean if it’s good enough for Bill Murray…)
- Ichiro’s Malt and Grain
Why are you even reading this?
- Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu Chibidaru
- Yamazaki 18/25 Years Old
- Hibiki 30 Years Old