Japanese Whisky: How And Why Suntory Is Taking Over

And there's no better place to start than with the masters at Suntory.

There's a new name taking the world of whisky by storm, and you might be surprised by its provenance. It isn't a Scottish name, or an Irish name or a Kentuckian name -- it's Suntory Japanese Whisky.

You might recognize Suntory as the three-time winner of "Distiller of the Year" at the International Spirits Challenge. You might recognize them as the makers of the Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki lines of whisky. You might even recognize them as the luxury whisky brand Bill Murray did some shilling for in "Lost in Translation." It is possible, for now, that you might not recognize Suntory's whiskies at all, but we're pretty sure that's not going to last very long.

So, what makes Japanese whisky different from Scotch? It's the first question everyone always asks, and the answer, says brand ambassador Neyah White, is really as simple as where it comes from. Not just in a philosophical way, but in a physical way. The water makes the difference. The Yamazaki 12 and Hakushu 12 are Suntory's single malts. Yamazaki is made in a valley outside Kyoto, in rich farmland. Hakushu is made from snow-melt, and we swear you can detect a slight hint of menthol from the surrounding pine trees. It sounds romantic, but it turns out to be the delicious truth. Hibiki 12, which White described as "the most Japanese" of the product line, is a blended whisky that ends up taking on many of the best characteristics of both of the single malts in one glass.

Another thing that separates Japanese whisky from whisky everywhere else is the drinking culture that surrounds it. As White explained, "In Japan, you just don't drink without eating. It isn't done." This means that whisky-drinking occasions in Japan tend to last longer, but it also means that the whisky has to be able to complement a wide variety of foods. White compares the flavor profile of Suntory's whiskies to a bento box, "as you go around to each compartment, you hit all the flavor receptors on your tongue." It's this flexibility in the whiskies that often causes people to describe them as "light" and "easy to drink." They simply taste good with everything else.

Our favorite of the line is definitely the Yamazaki 12. It has the robust butteriness of our favorite bourbons, the gentle smokiness of an easy-drinking Scotch and just a hint of the bright astringency of our favorite Irish whiskies. And because these whiskies are designed to be paired with food, they're a great option for cocktail parties, as well as for someone who is just learning which kind of whisky they like best.

As with other great distilleries around the world, Suntory is a family business, with distilling traditions handed down from father to son. Why does that always seem to make the whisky taste better? White says that context is everything. "The energy and thought over generations that’s gone into the product makes it easier to appreciate. It tastes better when you know the story behind it. We all know that whisky tastes better with other people, while we’re telling stories.”

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