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A Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Whisky Cocktails

Array of Japanese whisky bottles on a counter.

A land famous for sake and shochu, Japan has also become one of the best whisky makers in the world. Although whisky making in Japan is relatively new compared to Scotland and Ireland (places with centuries of whisky history), Japan has made great strides in a short period of time. In 2015, internationally acclaimed Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible named Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best whisky in the world. Japanese whiskey brands have even appeared in Hollywood pop culture, most famously in the film Lost in Translation with Bill Murray. For whisky aficionados around the world, Japanese whisky is nearly peerless, responsible for some of the best products in the world.

For such an in-depth topic, an expert is needed. Enter Shigefumi (Shige) Kabashima, the owner and bar director of NR and ROKC (Esquire’s “Best Bars in America 2017” and Thrillist’s “Best Cocktail Bars in America 2018”) in New York. Born and raised in Kyushu, Japan, Kabashima has twenty years of bartending and management experience. He has also taught Japanese bartender-style seminars and has been a consultant for hotels, restaurants, and bars in the United States and abroad. His latest venture is NR, a unique Japanese cocktail and ramen spot in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The design of the distinctive establishment was inspired by the port cities during Japan’s Meiji Period (1868-1912). The cocktail program here is extensive, featuring both classic and innovative cocktails, many of them featuring Japanese whisky.

What Makes Japanese Whisky Unique?

Japanese whisky-making is heavily inspired by Scotland (hence the spelling of whisky without the “e” after Scotch whisky). One man is responsible for starting the whisky tradition in Japan — Masataka Taketsuru, a Japanese chemist who arrived in Scotland in 1918. Originally in Scotland to study chemistry, Taketsuru soon became enamored with whisky and eventually brought the tradition back to Japan. Things moved fast and by the 1920s, whisky was already being produced at the commercial level in Japan, centered on the first Japanese whisky distillery in Kyoto.

Similar to Scotch, Japanese whisky also uses a large amount of malted barley. This barley is then mashed, twice distilled, and wood-aged in American oak or Sherry casks. Japanese whisky makers will also use native Mizunara oak, giving the whisky a citrusy and spicy fragrance. Most whisky distilleries in Japan are owned by two companies — Nikka and Suntory. But there is an interesting fact about Japan’s whisky industry that makes it unique from other countries. Despite Japan being influenced by Scottish whisky, there is a major divergence in terms of sharing. Unlike Scotland, there is no sharing between Japanese distilleries, forcing each Japanese distillery to self-innovate. This makes it difficult to classify Japanese whisky by any singular style, resulting in a diverse range of flavors ranging from fruity or herbaceous to citrusy or vanilla.

This diversity can be a challenge even for experts. “Since there is such a huge variety these days, I think it is difficult to tell the difference in taste by category. Personally, I like to drink Yamazaki 12y Japanese whisky and Buffalo Trace bourbon,” said Kabashima.

The Art of the Japanese Whisky Cocktail

While phenomenal by itself or over ice, Japanese whisky is also great in cocktails. In Japan, whisky highballs (whisky with soda water with the occasional citrus peel) are ubiquitous. Because of its large array of taste profiles, balancing the flavors of ingredients is important when crafting a Japanese whisky cocktail.

“I think that whisky has a unique sweetness and barrel flavor,” said Kabashima. “So I try to add sweetness, sourness, and bitterness to make each flavor stand out more. Be extra cognizant of the types of flavors that should be combined with the sweetness of the barrel notes in Japanese whisky and bourbon, and then try to find ingredients that are close to that taste to make it. Experiment!”

While some amateur cocktail and whisky drinkers might be intimidated by the process of creating their own Japanese whisky cocktail, it’s helpful to remember that sometimes simple is best. For Kabashima, some of his favorite flavor additions to Japanese whisky is yuzu (a Japanese citrus with notes of lime and tangerine) and Angostura bitters with bourbon

Boulevardier Cocktail Recipe

Boulevardier cocktail with Japanese Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky.
Boulevardier from Shige Kabashima.

(By Shige Kabashima of NR and ROKC in New York City.)

This Japanese cocktail uses Nikka Coffey grain. First released in 2012 by Nikka, this corn whisky is distilled in a Coffey still (column still) and aged in American oak casks (remade and re-charred), imparting a sweet and mellow flavor. The central philosophy to Kabashima’s cocktail creation is a combination of balance and culture. Because Kabashima has experience in both Japan and America, he understands how to create cocktails that fit both markets.

Many Japanese people like highballs and other items with relatively low alcohol content,” said Kabashima. “But I think that many people in New York prefer high alcohol content instead. At NR, we offer both.”

Note: Burdock is a long, slender root vegetable popular in Japan. When cooked, burdock root is crunchy with a soft, earthy flavor. Burdock chips can be purchased at your local Japanese or Korean market.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 oz Nikka Coffey grain
  • ⅔ oz burdock-infused amaro
  • ⅔ oz Dolin blanc
  • 1 dash of house angostura bitters (cinnamon, star anise, clove infused angostura bitters)

Method:

  1. Mix and stir all the ingredients together.
  2. Pour into a glass.
  3. Garnish with burdock chips.

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