Neyah White lifts a glass of Hakushu single malt on a visit to the Nihon Whisky Lounge.
When an ankle injury forced Neyah White, head barman at Nopa, to find a more sedentary profession, he looked to the world of whiskey. Though he was well acquainted with whiskeys from Scotland and bourbons from Kentucky, the field’s two great lodestars, he ended up getting a job as a rep for a Japanese distiller and discovered a frontier of spirit that he barely knew existed—and in the process uncovered a new passion.
Japanese whiskeys first caught my own attention several years ago during a visit to Nihon Whisky Lounge, the Tokyo-styled bar on Folsom Street. I discovered that these spirits had depth and complexity but also were extremely gentle. Later I noticed that Japanese single malts were taking home double gold medals in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, for which I am a judge.
Currently, the only Japanese whiskeys imported to the United States come from Suntory, the company made famous in the film Lost in Translation, and the one
that now employs White. Suntory’s U.S. labels include Yamazaki, a character-rich single malt; Hibiki, a smooth blended whiskey; and Hakushu, a single malt that has
recently begun to be imported here.
On the surface, with their notes of honey, maple, and spice, the Japanese whiskeys resemble classic scotch. Only when you taste them do you notice the differences. White talks about their restraint, a rare quality in whiskey, he says. They also have the same kind of complexity and precision found in Japanese flower arranging and calligraphy. As has happened with other Western forms that the Japanese have adapted, something is gained in translation. Think of the spaghetti-eating characters in Murakami novels who spend their days listening to jazz, or the particular way in which Japanese filmmakers interpret the horror genre. These
whiskeys are Western products with a Japanese soul.
“They’re made for the Japanese palate,” says White. “But just as with sushi—the popularity of which, if you think about it, is very improbable in America—we
respond.” Indeed, try the Yamazaki 18-year-old with salmon sashimi dipped in soy sauce (no wasabi). It’s a beautiful pairing. Curious and delightful, perfect for a cold winter evening in San Francisco.
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