What makes Japanese whisky distinctive: the 3 Ws - water, weather and wood

Whisky barrels left to age at the Suntory cellars at Hakushu distillery at Mount Kaikoma in Japan. PHOTO: SUNTORY

(THE WASHINGTON POST) - File under "great work if you can find it": Gardner Dunn is the Japanese whisky ambassador for Suntory Whisky, that country's oldest commercial distillery.

I couldn't make it to Japan to talk spirits, but I could travel a couple of miles from The Post to the embassy (which is officially Japanese soil), where he was visiting, to learn more about one of Japan's most treasured exports.

I also met with official ambassadorial counselors and diplomats, whose job descriptions include promoting cultural understanding between countries through food ("soft power," they call it), and explain why Japanese whisky, which has become an It Liquor in the United States in the past few years, is a distinctly Japanese product.

Japanese whisky wasn't even available in the United States until the late 1980s. It hit the gourmet radar in the early 2000s, when whiskies from Japan's two largest distilleries, Nikka and Suntory, won two major international whisky awards (one of which was the first time a whisky from outside Scotland was ever recognised).

Even after that, said Dunn, "from Lost In Translation, a lot of people thought Suntory was some fictitious company used for the movie".

Then the 2015 Jim Murray's Whiskey Bible named Suntory's 2013 Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask the best in the world, a drink of "near incredible genius," and the fury was off and running, complete with whisky investment funds, futures and auctions.

The Japanese business philosophy of kaizen, constant experimentation and innovation distinguishes that country's whisky from, say, Scotch whisky or American bourbon whiskey. With each barrel, Japanese whisky makers and blenders try to evolve the liquor; Mitsue Morita, public affairs counselor for the Japanese Embassy, calls her country's whisky a "dynamic" product.

The 12-year-old Japanese whisky you drink 20 years from now should not taste the same as the 12-year-old one you drink today. In comparison, whisky makers in Scotland are often so obsessed with consistency that they make dents in their new metal pot stills to replicate old ones they are replacing.

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So blenders who make Japanese whisky are critical to the process, and making Japanese whisky is akin to making fine wine. Just as wine varies greatly with years of production and reflects the terroir, or land, so does Japanese whisky.

To preserve their palates, blenders tend to eat the same food every day and aren't allowed to smoke or eat garlic when tasting whisky.

As for reflecting the terroir, I call it the three W's of Japanese whisky: the water, the weather and the wood. All three are particular to Japan, and its whisky wouldn't be the same without them.

First, the water. Suntory built Japan's first commercial whisky distillery, which it called the Yamakazi distillery, in 1924, on the same location as the first Taian teahouse four centuries earlier. The water is extremely soft, lacking minerals that would interfere with the full expression of the tea - or, now, whisky.

The reverence for water continues when whisky is served in bars, particularly in the mindfulness demonstrated in what Morita calls the "art" of highball service in which "everything is in harmony". The quality of water added to make the uber-popular highball is critical, as there are three parts water or soda to one part whisky, diluting the drink to the level of a strong beer.

Ice is crucial, too. Unlike in the United States, several companies in Japan compete for restaurants' ice business, advertising artisanal, low-oxygen ice. Ice balls are often hand-chipped at the bar. (Dunn recommends Bar High Five in Tokyo.)

Second, the wood. Japanese whiskies are aged in barrels made of Japanese oak, or mizunara. Dunn says mizunara is more porous than American or European oak. Mizunara trees grow mainly in one forest in Hokkaido and have to be 200 years old to make a barrel, so Suntory creates only about 130 barrels per year. The trees are also often crooked, making it difficult to cut straight planks for a barrel. Mizunara casks are far rarer than American or European oak casks.

Third, the weather. Japan has four distinct seasons. When the barrels expand in the humid summer, whisky is sucked into the wood, infusing the liquid with flavour and character. When the barrels contract in the winter, the whisky makers say the liquor is "sleeping".

Dunn says: "Scotland has two seasons: Cold and wet, and warm and wet. Nothing wrong with that; it makes great whisky."

Most of the Japanese distilleries actually import ingredients from Scotland (reflecting the heritage of the first Japanese whisky maker, who learned his trade in Scotland), so the alternately hot and cold environment is a key factor to create a product that is unmistakably of Japan. Then the aromas of fragrant spring flowers (think cherry blossoms) and fall foliage affect the whisky, according to its makers and lovers.

Japanese whisky's body and balance also help it pair well with foods. The drink can range from peaty to smoky to light to fruity, so there is a whisky for most meals. And while single-malt Japanese whiskies are valued, the prevalence of blends in Japan means that whisky makers mostly create balanced, smooth and subtle flavours.

The next time you visit Japan - or a Japanese restaurant - consider whisky with your meal. The three W's are a delicious example of soft power at its best.

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