The Japanese Bar Invasion: Whisky & Sake
Noon Inthasuwan-Summers is a certified sommelier, certified sake expert, a BarSmarts certified mixologist, and the founder of ProperlyDrunk Beverage Consulting. She has won several competitions, including the Woodford Reserve Boston’s Best Manhattan Competition in 2014. Noon also knows how to have fun behind the bar and when she’s teaching, evidenced by her sharing a haiku about Japanese whisky at the start of her 2016 Nightclub & Bar Show education session:
Japanese whisky: grains, yeast, water and oak
Tradition meets innovation of quality and dedication
Science and crafts in artisanal harmony
Addressing the meteoric rise in popularity and demand for Japanese whisky, Noon started with the basics. First, as the whiskey versus whisky contingent would no doubt be quick to point out, countries with the letter “E" in the name spell it “whiskey” while those without the letter “E" tend to spell it as “whisky.” So, keep that in mind when featuring Japanese whisky on your menu, your social media channels, and marketing materials lest you incur the wrath of the whisk(e)y snobs/nerds.
Next, Noon spoke about the misconception that Japanese whisky is similar to Scotch whisky. It is true that Scotland influenced whisky production in Japan but you should put Scotch out of your mind when tasting Japan’s water of life. And speaking of influences, take a look at Scotland’s distilleries and you’ll find that roughly 60% of them have an exterior feature awfully reminiscent of Japan’s pagodas. It seems both cultures learned quite a lot from one another.
Some people may be surprised to learn that Japan’s whisky history dates back to 1923 when the first bill was introduced. It’s likely that many of the more casual whisky drinkers out there were under the impression that Japanese whisky is somehow a new product. And it’s likely that fallacy was born of the multitude of Japanese distilleries that started taking home numerous awards from various respected spirits competitions and publications starting around the year 2003. Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 from Japanese distiller Suntory took the title of Best Whisky in the 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, a massive coup that caused Yamazaki’s popularity to skyrocket.
Of course, sometimes popularity has a downside. Japanese whiskies with age statements are being taken off the shelves because of their popularity; the distillers just can’t produce enough whisky to keep up with the demand for their whisky. An economic crash in Japan during the '80s that caused distilleries to close has also contributed to a lack of product. Simply put, the product isn’t there so No Age Statement (NAS) whisky will be sold in its stead. This isn’t necessarily, however, a bad thing. When discussing this with your guests (and training your bar staff) you can tell them that the scarcity of the sought-after single malts has forced (inspired may be a better way to phrase it) distilleries to really look at blending techniques to create house style whiskies. Also, when guests ask you what’s new you have the NAS bottles of Japanese whisky to show them and talk about.
Those looking to add these whiskies to their menus should look at what Noon refers to as The Pillars of Japanese Whisky: Suntory and Nikka. The popular brands Yamazaki and Habushu are produced by Suntory while Yochi and Miyagiko are made by Nikka. Other notable labels are the rare Karuzawa, incredibly rare Hanyu, bourbon drinker-friendly Akashi, Fuji-Gotemba which is good for highballs, and Chichibu.
The Japanese liquid invasion isn’t limited to whisky. Interest in and demand for sake has been on the rise for several years now, and it isn’t showing any sign of slowing. And yes, Noon also has a haiku for sake:
Multiple parallel fermentation
Rice, yeast, koji and water
Ambrosia in sake
Sake is the subject of its own misconceptions. First, it’s not produced in a distillery. Second, it is not a spirit. And third, sake is not rice wine. That third misconception probably stems from how sake is made: rice is harvested in the fall and then washed, soaked, polished and steamed before left to sit and then mixed with a malt. It is the only alcohol beverage product that involves multiple parallel fermentation in its production. Sake is close to beer due to how it’s made, yet it’s closer to wine due to its flavors and lack of carbonation. Clear sake is a relatively new development (introduced only about 50 or 60 years ago): it’s usually harsh and cloudy. Unfiltered sake also isn’t actually unfiltered. The best way to explain what it is, then, is partially filtered. The last misconception we’ll correct is the temperature at which it should be served. Sake shouldn’t be overheated. It should instead be matched to your body temperature to be enjoyed properly.
There are also many styles of sake available. The thing to remember is that if you see the word junmai, no alcohol has been added to the sake. A limited amount of distilled alcohol is added to other styles, and the various styles indicate what percentage has been added. The reason alcohol is added to some sakes is it enhances esters, aromas and maltiness. Noon said it’s important to keep in mind that in terms of sake, pricing tends to be an indication of quality, so you usually get what you pay for. She also shared some current sake trends in America, like sparkling sake being used similarly to Prosecco and the use of sake to create aromatic or sour cocktails.
Japanese whisky and sake are here to stay, and they’re the focus of many current bar and cocktail trends. Learn how to use them effectively and you’ll leverage their popularity.