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Japanese Whisky Gets a Lot of Hype, but Can One Bottle Really Be the Best?

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This is Straight Up, a column by whiskey expert and author Heather Greene. Today, Greene investigates whether Japanese whisky really is the world's number-one dram.

If you keep up with national whiskey conversation, by now you'll have sifted through a dozen articles that tout Japanese whisky as the best in the world. This year's Whisky Bible sparked the latest whiskey craze by declaring the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 the world's best whisky — a drink of "indescribable genius," a dram which "no Scotch can at the moment can go near." Those declarations smoked most other whiskey topics into silence both in the bars and in media. Articles with lip-licking headlines such as "Scotland Humiliated!" make good drama. Less entertaining are empty liquor store shelves and rising prices fueled by the media frenzy that took an idea of a de facto one-whiskey winner and ran with it. Here's the truth: There is no such thing as a universal best whiskey, and I have science on my side.

There is no such thing as a universal best whiskey, and I have science on my side.

I called Dr. Leslie Stein, director of science communications at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, a think-tank for gustatory and olfaction scientists. I'd visited them while doing research for my book, where we found that when 10 of us plugged our noses and drank a variety of whiskies, we couldn't detect a significant difference amongst any of them — and that included a beaker of pure ethyl alcohol. I asked if she had any thoughts about the recent one-whiskey winner claim or the idea that there's a style of whiskey that would suit all palates. Within an hour she'd emailed me studies and papers surrounding the topic of palate subjectivity.

I Might Not Smell Like You Do

We have between 350 and 400 genes that determine our ability to receive and interpret smell. Almost one-third of them show tremendous variability across the population. Some of us have fully-functioning receptors, while others have small mutations that leave us unable to identify some of the aromatic compound molecules volatizing out of any given whiskey. Every single one of us has at least one specific molecular anosmia, or an inability to smell an aromatic compound completely. We all experience aromas at different strengths and with different abilities, which means that learning how to trust and rely on our own judgments is just as important as using a whiskey guide written by an expert. Maybe you'd detect the raisin or fig notes in the Yamazaki 2013. But not everyone will.

The raters' sensitivities do not represent even the average consumer — much less all consumers.

Science also shows that our sense of smell is highly malleable. Olfactory neurons are the only nerve cells in the body to regenerate — the old ones are replaced by new ones every 30 to 60 days. Scientists at Monell explain that when some people are exposed to very low levels of odors over time, sensitivity to those odors can increase by orders of magnitude after they're exposed to the aroma a tiny bit every day for six weeks. In other words, some of you might not smell a particular aroma in the Yamazaki 2013 on the first go-round during a whisky tasting, but over time, might develop an ability to identify it. Others might identify the scent the very first time, and a whole bunch of you will never smell it at all.

"Any rating system that relies on very the few observers is likely to be idiosyncratic, since the raters' sensitivities do not represent even the average consumer — much less all consumers," Dr. Gary Beauchamp, former Monell Director, explained in a 2006 edition of the institute's newsletter. "That said, a group of highly trained individuals is better than one." In other words, that research has been publicly available for almost 10 years.

The Appeal of Japanese Whisky

So what are Japanese whisky makers doing to make such a universally appealing product? I enjoy Japanese whiskies, as do many whiskey aficionados. I sipped my first taste of Taketsuru 12 Pure Malt a couple years ago at a local whiskey conference, after a colleague pulled a bubble-wrapped bottle out of a messenger bag and poured me a dram. The Taketsuru landed heavily across my tongue, a richer and oilier whisky than the creamier Suntory Yamazaki whiskies I'd tasted many times. Hints of coffee and dark chocolate spread across the finish. This was a dazzling explosion of flavor and texture, with hints of smoke and peat cutting through — the merest suggestion of Japan's common ancestry with Scotch whisky, yet distinctly unique.

Whispers amongst us whiskey wonks, writers, and panelists were that Japanese whiskies would eventually explode onto the American whiskey scene and dominate our conversations. I couldn't think of any other Japanese whiskies of which it reminded me, and so the question quickly moved from "What does Japanese whiskey taste like?" to "What do the Japanese do differently to keep a variety of palates so satisfied?"

The Japanese are experienced whisky-makers. Whisky production began there in early 1920s, close to a century ago. Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist, studied whisky making in Scotland in 1918 and returned to Japan with both a Scottish wife and a notebook full of details to help build the country's first whisky distillery with Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory. In 1923 the two chose a plot of land outside Kyoto, less than a quarter mile from where Sen no Rikyu, the 16th-century father of the Japanese tea ceremony, built his first tea house almost 300 years earlier. They'd name this distillery Yamazaki.

Taketsuru left the enterprise in 1934 to build the Yoichi distillery on the most northern island of Hokkaido. Both his distillery legacies, Yoichi and Miyagikyo, now operate under the name Nikka. Taketsuru Pure Malt is a blend malt from the Nikka distilleries. Suntory expanded to build Hakushu in 1940, and the two Suntory distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu, blend together to create the wildly popular Hibiki range. These two companies — Nikka and Suntory — export the majority of Japanese malts worldwide through their four distilleries.

"If you ask me, the common thread that connects Japanese whisky is Suntory," says Eliot Faber, a Japanese whisky expert based in Hong Kong. "All whiskey there was born out of that enterprise that started in the early 20th century." When I contacted Suntory to ask if they felt they were doing anything differently that makes their whisky stand out, I received a humble and very polite response: That they constantly review the whisky quality when they change any aspect of the whisky-making process. But they quickly added that "we believe that the producers in Scotland also do this."

Like a chef, they have more ingredients to play around with and combine.

Japan vs Scotland: Some Differences

I'll tell you what the Single Malt Scotch whisky distilleries don't do: House enough still shapes and styles within each distillery to create and combine distillate into an infinite number of aromatic and taste personalities. Scottish distilleries usually distill spirit in one or two signature pot-stills that help define a whiskey's character. At the Glenmorangie distillery, for example, stills are almost 27 feet tall, while at the Macallan, they're relatively squat. All this happens before cask maturation and drives flavor into a whisky. Suntory's Yamazaki, then, with its array of stills, is a one-stop shopping destination where the craftsman can pull together whiskies to suit both my palate and yours by tweaking different flavors out of the equipment. I'd need a sampling from many more Single Malt Scotch distilleries — there are 108 — to create as varied a tasting that Suntory could do using only Hakushu and Yamazaki whiskies. Like a chef, they have more ingredients to play around with and combine to get the taste and mouthfeel they're looking for.

With so many more options, Japanese whisky makers also need to be methodical in how to go about exploring what combinations work without getting lost in the possibilities. Japan's reverence and adaptation of statistical quality controls, quality design, and zero-defect strategies brought over by mathematician W. Edward Deming to improve a devastated post-WWII economy pulled them out of a severe slump. It allowed the country to dominate car manufacturing and electronics by the 1980s. I found hints of this larger cultural approach applied to the whisky making process, too. Mike Miyamoto, master distiller at Suntory, calls it "Continuous Refinement." "If the Yamazaki you hold in your hand tastes the same in 10 years, we have failed," he once told me. This means tightening and perfecting occurs every moment in the process, as does buffing out defects and exploring new designs and methods. Changes for the better are encouraged, both in taste and in process.

Scottish distillers are limited somewhat by tradition and provenance — there's an underlying philosophy that says the palate of a Glenfiddich 12 should stay that way, year after year. But this is also a good thing: There's wistful romance in enjoying a whisky that theoretically tastes the same as the one my grandmother drank in Scotland. And all those distilleries make for a rewarding Scotch whisky journey. It just takes a bit more time to land your palate-match.

You won't find any more Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 whisky. The hype surrounding the claim that it's "the best whisky in the world" drove whisky lovers en masse to the stores to deplete the allocations. But I don't have a bottle either, and I'm not fussed.

Heather Greene is a whiskey expert and the author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, out now.