Think whiskey and you likely think of your buddy Johnnie Walker. But what about Yamazaki and Hakushu? Whiskies from these and other major Japanese brands, like Suntory and Nikka, are quickly finding their way into bars around town.
It wasn’t until the early ’90s that Japanese whisky was introduced to the States, and even more recently that more than a few varieties were readily available. “Japanese whisky is only 100 years old as an idea,” says Daikaya beverage director Lukas Smith. “It took Suntory 50 years to make a single malt,” while Jameson has been at it since 1780.
The taste of Japanese whisky is most comparable to Scotch, though there are some subtle differences. “Japanese whisky doesn’t necessarily have the same smokiness,” Smith says. Rather, the whisky is often sweeter and more floral. Also unlike Scotch, “the essential flavor profiles remain the same with age,” Smith says. “They remain true to what’s initially going in the barrel.”
With the growing availability of Japanese whiskies in the United States, there are more than a few opportunities to sample them in the District, including bars, hyper-traditional Japanese sushi shops and modern, contemporary kitchens. Here are three distinct ways to experience Japanese whisky.
Try It Straight
In Japan, the preference is to drink whisky with soda or “mizuwari” (which translates as “mixed with water”) and largely not with food. “The taste and aroma of whisky are very strong and don’t necessarily go with Japanese cuisine,” says Sushi Taro co-owner Jin Yamazaki, who offers six varieties of the liquor. He adds that a few heavily flavored dishes, like “yakitori” (Japanese skewered and grilled meats coated in a sweet sauce), can stand up to Japanese whisky.
Try It Paired With Food
In the U.S., chefs and bartenders are less beholden to Japanese customs. Scott Drewno of The Source has no qualms about pairing the robust aromatics in Japanese whiskies with his dishes. “Many Japanese whiskies have a lighter, smoky malt and more fruit-forward citrus notes than other whiskies on the market,” Drewno says. “I like them paired with scallops, salmon and black cod.” In particular, Drewno likes a Hakushu 12 year with his Sencha tea-smoked salmon, Asian pear puree and yuzu kochu vinaigrette. (The dish is free when you order a $15 shot of Hakushu 12 for the month of June; it’s also available as part of the $135 seven-course dinner tasting.)
Try It in a Mixed Drink
At Daikaya, Smith often substitutes Japanese whisky in classic Scotch-based cocktails. His variation on the Blood and Sand cocktail (traditionally made with Scotch, orange juice, sweet vermouth and cherry liqueur) combines
Hakushu 12, grapefruit juice, bitter Punt e Mes vermouth and Luxardo Sangue Morlacco cherry liqueur. Dubbed the Mood and Wind ($15), the cocktail takes on a greener flavor thanks to the Hakushu 12, which “brings out some minty-ness,” Smith says.
Sushi Taro, 1503 17th St. NW; 202-462-8999, sushitaro.com. (Dupont Circle)
The Source, 575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-637-6100, wolfgangpuck.com. (Archives)
Daikaya, 705 Sixth St. NW; 202-589-1600, daikaya.com. (Gallery Place)