Japanese Whiskey Appreciation

Mention Japanese food and we think of sushi, sashimi and ramen. Mention Japanese beverages and we think of green tea and sake. However, we never associated Japan with whiskey until recently.

To a lot of people, whiskey seems to be some kind of moonshine that is only drunk by old men sitting by the fireplace during winter. However, there has been a revival of interest in whiskey that has grown in popularity over the years. Whiskey appreciation classes and seminars have also become popular much like wine and craft beer appreciation.

For a long time the best whiskies came from Scotland or Ireland. But this soon changed in 2003 when Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 year old whiskey won a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge. The following year Suntory’s Hibiki 30 year old won a trophy at the same challenge. Since then, Japanese whiskey has become an international best seller with available stocks being sold out almost immediately when released. In fact, Japanese whiskies are also becoming an investment commodity much like rare wines. Collectors have been to known to buy up stocks at high prices in anticipation of even higher prices in the future.

If you are like me who doesn’t know his Nikka from Yamazaki, and you are interested in getting to know more about Japanese whiskey, why not do this while in the land of it’s origin; Japan. Specifically in Kyoto, home of the award winning Yamazaki distillery.

So while on a trip to Kyoto recently, I contacted an old friend who introduced me to a couple of guys running a Japanese whiskey appreciation class. For a small fee and a couple of hours of my time, I could get to become a connoisseur of fine whiskies, so why not. Details of their whiskey class can be found here.

I found myself walking into a quiet Japanese neighborhood to meet my hosts. The class was conducted in a modern Japanese machiya and the class size was kept small with a maximum of 8 participants and conducted in English. Our host started off with a short history of whiskies world wide and how whiskey making spread to Japan. We also learnt about the different types of grain and production methods that are used to produce whiskey and how they affect the taste. Even the design of the still has an effect on the taste of whiskey. And if you always thought that single malt was better than blended whiskey, now is the time to learn otherwise.

A sampling of the types of whiskies that are available for tasting.
Whiskey tasting class has started. We got to try 4 different types of well known Japanese whiskies. Each was chosen to emphasize their taste and pairing with food. Who would have guessed that whiskey pairs well with chocolates.

So after the short history lesson and technical explanation of whiskey production, it was time to get into the favorite part of the class: the tasting session. We had 4 different whiskeys chosen for their difference in taste. If you always felt that all whiskies taste the same, then be prepared to be surprised. Each whiskey was paired with a particular food item to bring out their taste.

Besides just whiskey tasting, you can also purchase bottles of whiskey at reasonable prices subjected to availability of stocks.

Besides just discussing about the usual Japanese whiskey brands that are in vogue right now, our host also introduced other Japanese whiskey makers which are upcoming and may be of interest to connoisseurs.

Although there is a short lecture at the beginning of the class about the history and production of whiskey, the class was a fun and enjoyable session with much laughter and comradery, and also a great way to meet other visitors to Kyoto. Food and drink are a great way to learn about the culture of a country, and this is a fun way to learn, so I would recommend spending time here if you can.

Additional tastings can be had at nominal charge. So if you are interested in trying some rare Japanese whiskey, you can make a request (if available). But drink responsibly or you’ll be seeing double.

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