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The Social Drinker: The Japanese Whisky Hipster

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I like listening to music and drinking whiskey. Preferably at the same time.

Lately, being a hipster of some kind has been the popular thing. To like things other people don’t like; like obscure bands or rye whiskey. The funny thing – or is it ironic? – about being a hipster is that, in someways, everyone is a hipster. We all have those things we nerd out about, those interests that we enjoy obsessing over. Lately, for me, that’s been whiskey; specifically, Japanese whisky.

Oh, did you notice the “e” disappear in that last use of whisky? That’s because in Japanese there is no “e” in whisky. Why? Because Japanese distilling techniques came from Scotland and in Scotland there is only Scotch whisky. So, from here on out, since this article is about Japanese whisky, I’ll be using the location-specific spelling.

Photo by Scott Schiller, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by Scott Schiller, Creative Commons Licensing.

Visit your nearest liquor store and you might be hard-pressed to find any Japanese whisky. While my passion is for it, my problem is finding it. That’s because, at the end of 2014, a Japanese whisky was named the world’s best whisky. Jim Murray – one of the maestros of contemporary whiskey writing – awarded a Yamazaki Single Malt as the best whisky in the world. He described the drink as a dram of “near indescribable genius” in his 2015 World Whisky Bible. High praise.

Every whiskey devotee took note and began buying up available stock. Something that sat on shelves for months was now a rarity. A contact of mine at a liquor store joked that there was a two-week waiting period before he would even know if he could order a Japanese whisky, let alone the distillery it would come from. Assuming he could place such an order, he had no idea how long the waiting period would be for the actual shipment.

Japanese whisky, quite suddenly, became the darling of the drinking world.

As it goes, I realized that if I was going to enjoy the taste of Japan anytime soon, I’d need to find my dealer, so to speak. One Monday recent, I drove all over my city visiting every liquor store I could find. I hit the spirit shops in chain stores, the grocery liquor stores; I even made a special trip to a treasured hole-in-the-wall outside of town. Nothing.

People, clerks in their shoppes, asked me if I meant saké when I said Japanese whisky. No, I didn’t, but thank you for your time.

After a scouring that took me to parts of the city I rarely think of and never visit, traveling to more liquor stores than I’d been prepared to expect, I found it. The shop. With the whisky. When I made it inside, I made a bee-line for the whisky section. I was impressed with their selection – the best in town, if I’m being honest – and saw them immediately. That’s right, them. Two different whiskys by two different Japanese distilleries. Both Nikka and Hakushu distilleries were represented. How on earth was I this lucky? Talk about a score.

Photo by WickedTV, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by WickedVT, Creative Commons Licensing.

Naturally, I was full of questions. How long had they been carrying Japanese whisky? Did they carry different distilleries? Did they do special orders? I didn’t want to let on just how surprised I was nor let them know that, at the time, they were the only game in town. Japanese whiskey is at least $70/bottle or more and the last thing I wanted was an unexpected (if understandable) price mark-up next time I visited.

Eerily enough, the woman at the counter told me her shop had always carried Japanese whisky. I say eerie, because it was. It was like I’d stumbled into a Japanese ghost story. I had stepped into Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, but instead of a black cat in a bamboo grove it was bottles of whiskey in a liquor store. Of course we have what you’re looking for; we’ve always had it. You’ve always been here.

She answered all my questions. In fact, they usually had more Japanese whisky, but hadn’t received their latest shipment. Not because it was late, but because Monday wasn’t the day it came in. Yes, they offered selections from different distilleries and, of course, they could do special orders and what was I looking for?

Everything, that’s what I was looking for.

While I wanted everything, I counted my lucky stars that they had what they did. I took one bottle of each – a Nikka 12 and a Hakushu 12 – and was on my merry way. Pricey, sure, but if word got out? Better stock up and keep my mouth shut.

Hilariously, at the writing of this article there are now two stores in my city with Japanese whisky. While what is carried are not bottles of the famed dram praised by Murray – good luck finding a Yamazaki in this town, I tell you – they are drams nonetheless.

If you’re interested in tasting Japanese spirits of a malted grain persuasion, I would recommend starting with the Hakushu 12. It’s well-rounded and easy on the palate. Plus, you know, you might actually stand a chance of finding it in Alaska. Give it a splash of water or mix it with a soda; there’s no harm in experimenting.

Should you count yourself lucky – and the Japanese whisky kami are smiling on you – try anything from the Yamazaki Distillery. If you have even the slightest interest in whisky, I’d wager you won’t be disappointed. What if you, heaven forbid, don’t like whisky at all?

Knuckle down and give Japanese whisky a shot. Pun intended.

You never know what you might like. If you don’t like it, I’ll finish your dram for you. I mean, by this point, you know I’m a Japanese whisky hipster. But whatever, you’d probably never heard of it before this article.

Jeremia Schrock holds a B.A. in History from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He writes a drinking column for the Alaska Commons and hosts a variety show on KSUA 91.5 FM. He enjoys whiskey, Formula 1 racing, and a bright color palette.

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