Japanese whisky is experiencing golden age, whether it’s in Las Vegas or nationwide. Back in the 2003, when the famous film “Lost in Translation,” was released, actor Bill Murray had struggled with the line “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time”. The very idea his director was so passionate over a Japanese whisky was part of the anecdote. The nation was not, at the time, known for its whisky.
Fast forward 13 years and the bottle Murray is holding, a $300-$400 bottle of Hibiki 17-year-old by Suntory, is valued by whisky enthusiasts in Las Vegas and worldwide. What’s more, its more popular, less expensive younger relative is rapidly vanishing from bars across the country.
Hayes Swope, who offers it for $23 a pour at SushiSamba at Palazzo says “the Hibiki was named the best blended whisky in the world. But they can’t make the 12-year anymore. I still have a bottle of it. We have two (at the restaurant). And when it’s gone, it’s gone. They’re never reproducing it.”
Neither Suntory nor its Hibiki trademark is a stroke of luck. Japanese whisky is going through a golden age. Some pay tribute Murray with bringing it to fame. But the charm exceeds that. According to Adam Carmer, a UNLV professor and owner of The Whisky Attic: “The Japanese take whisky very seriously. They’re craftsmen. They’re artists.”
The world is taking heed. “A few years ago the Japanese started winning every competition,” Swope expresses. “In all the different spirit competitions, when it comes to brown liquors and whiskys worldwide, the Japanese are taking every category. They’ve got the best single-malt whisky, the best blended malt, the best overall whisky in the world.”
The defining moment came in 2014, when whisky connoisseur Jim Murray named a 2013 single-malt sherry cask by Yamazaki the World Whisky of the Year in the 2015 edition of his Whisky Bible. On top of driving the value of a bottle of that limited release from about $100-$200 in the U.S. to anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, it fired a seemingly voracious thirst for the nation’s whisky.
Global bar manager for Zuma restaurant chain, James Shearer, explains that they “didn’t predict the demand, the global market for Japanese whisky is so much that (not only) Hibiki 12 will no longer be made. Nikka and Suntory have announced that they will no longer be able to make (other) beautiful age statements, because they’ve just run out. They’ll have to take another 10 or 20 years to produce them.”
Japan is a comparative newcomer to the small group of nations that yield serious whisky (or whiskey, depending on the country). The drink is thought to have been introduced to the island nation by U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry back in 1853, when he sailed to Japan to open trade and, as Swope words it, “decided to sweeten the deal with a barrel of whisky.”
Japanese chemist and entrepreneur, Masataka Taketsuru traveled to Scotland in 1918, for what would be the Mars distillery, to study organic chemistry and apprentice at local distilleries. When he arrived home in 1920, his sponsor had gone bust, so he lent his skills to the distillery that would become Suntory. Upon leaving that position in 1934, he established Nikka distilleries, which is still a top manufacturer.
Japanese distilleries offer both blended and single-malt variations. Disparate to the Scots, they only blend from within their own distillery or family of distilleries. Independently, Suntory alone creates 116 single malts, six more than the whole nation of Scotland.
Flavors vary from light and sweet to heavy, smoky and loaded with peat. Like most whiskys, they can be enjoyed straight, with a touch of water or even in cocktails — although mixing high-end whiskys is considered sacrilegious by true aficionados.
Customarily, ice should be offered in balls, which have a lower surface area and, therefore, dilute the product less.
With local assortments of Japanese whiskys increasing (SushiSamba offers approximately 30, Zuma has 26), choosing one can be daunting. Shearer suggests you “come and establish a relationship with your bartender” first.
“The bartender needs to understand what (customers) like,” he says of newbies to the field. “Do they like something sweet? Smooth? Do they want wood notes to it? Do they want something peaty? What is their go-to choice for a Scotch?”
Whatever you choose, the career barman doubts you’ll be let down. “What we love about Japan — not just in whisky, but in sake and beer and anything that they do — is the detail and the time and the precision and the patience speak for itself when you try it.”