Just about everyone we know who’s in the ‘in’ crowd when it comes to Melbourne’s best cocktail bars has been RAVING about Japanese whisky. Whisky? What’s the big deal?! I mean, the Scottish have been making it, quite literally, for centuries. Surely there’s not much the Japanese can teach the land that gave us kilts, Braveheart, and deep fried Mars bars.
Keen to get to the bottom of what’s fast becoming the coolest spirit to order from your local in-the-know bartender, we caught up with an expert on the topic of all things Japan. Meet Simon Denton, co-owner of Melbourne’s most delicious Japanese restaurants, Hihou, Kappo and Izakaya Den, who explained what all the fuss is about when it comes to Suntory, the biggest name in Japanese whisky that there is, who just so happens to be taking over Hihou every Wednesday in July for some delicious whisky and food pairing events...
So, Simon. Japanese whisky has been around for a while, I’m guessing. But why is it such a big deal right now?
Japanese whisky brand Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask whisky winning the ‘whisky of the year’ title in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible (aka. the ultimate authority on all things whisky) this year catapulted an already growing cult love for Japanese whisky into the mainstream.
As to why it’s taken off so well in Melbourne’s best cocktail bars, it’s a combination of increased interest in Japanese culture, the movie ‘Lost in Translation’ and Bill Murray’s ‘Suntory time!’ And lastly, the quality of the product.
Okay, so the experts love it, but why is everyone making a point about it being JAPANESE whisky?
Compared to scotch or bourbon, Japanese whisky is unique in its packaging and flavours. Like most things from Japan, it also carries a sense of mystery and intrigue.
How does Japanese whisky differ compared to scotch, American whisky or even our local award-winning Tassie stuff?
Japanese whisky was modelled on Scotch whisky with the first few distilleries getting their experience in Scotland, then bringing the ideas back to Japan, along with some peat and barley—the core ingredients in whisky-making—as well. I find it has a delicacy and elegance when compared to the others, especially when compared to fiery scotch whisky!
I’m keen to try a Japanese whisky! Where should I start?
Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 year-old is a great beginner’s drink—it’s bold without being too peaty. Hibiki 17 year-old is very complex and makes the perfect drink for those who want a whisky that really packs a punch.
You know a lot about Japanese food as well as drinks. What should I be eating while sipping a Japanese whisky?
We find it’s flexible, and really depends on which whisky you’re drinking. For Suntory Hakushu, we love oysters or smoky grilled eel on rice, for Suntory Yamazaki, some mushrooms kara-age, and Hibiki always pairs nicely with more luxurious dishes such as lobster temaki or grilled wagyu beef.
Anything that gives me an excuse to eat more lobster gets my vote! What do I need to say about Japanese whisky to sound like a pro?
‘Oishi!’—‘Delicious!’ Ha! Like any drink, it’s a personal thing and what you smell or taste is often unique to you. Knowing how to pronounce the names and understanding who the main distilleries are is a good start. Suntory looks after the Hibiki, Hakushu and Yamazaki distilleries, as well as bottling under its own name.
Lastly, what’s in your glass when you’re sipping a Japanese whisky?
I LOVE a Hakushu 12 year-old whisky highball with mint (a twist on the traditional whisky soda). If I’m drinking Yamazaki or Hibiki, adding a little cold water, or ‘mizuwari’ as the Japanese say, makes for the perfect drink. A beautiful carved piece of ice can work too depending on my mood…Delicious!
Keen to try the spirit that everyone’s been talking about? Get yourself a ticket for The House of Suntory take-over at Hihou running every Wednesday in July, where you can try 3 courses matched with Japanese whisky for $55 or the full six courses for $120. Book your spot here.
Alternatively, here are our top restaurants and cocktail bars in Melbourne for trying some Japanese fire water:
Hihou, Kappo and Izakaya Den
With a newly released whisky menu, 1806 has added three stellar Japanese whiskies to its menu; Hakushu 12 year-old, Hibiki 17 year-old, and Yamazaki 12 year-old.
Less Than Zero
This Prahran cocktail bar stocks the entire collection of Suntory whiskies. Get in there for a tasting sesh asap!
These guys keep pretty much every whisky ever made, which they serve alongside epic cheese and charcuterie boards. A must for true whisky devotees.
Image credit: A Better, Happier St Sebastian