SAN FRANCISCO — It was not too long ago that Owen Westman’s customers at Rickhouse Bar did not even know there were Japanese whiskeys available, let alone ask for them by name.
“They certainly do now,” Westman says.
Although best known for sake, Japan has a whiskey tradition stretching back more than a century. It is not widely available in the United States, but that is changing as companies like major producer Suntory work to boost overseas sales.
And maybe Bill Murray had something to do with it. His character in the 2003 movie “Lost in Translation” goes to Japan to shoot a whiskey commercial.
Suntory exports a number of products, including Yamazaki single malt whiskeys and Hibiki, a blend.
The origins of the Japanese whiskey industry have ties to Scotland. Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru, who studied distilling in Scotland. Taketsuru went on to found Nikka, also a major producer.
Despite that history, Suntory whiskey is “not Scotch made in Japan,” points out Eric Ariyoshi, a Suntory brand manager based in San Francisco.
One of Torii’s goals was “to really create a Japanese whiskey that catered to a more subtle palate,” says Ariyoshi. “If you think about Japanese food, it tends to be on the lighter side, very subtle flavors. One of his specific goals was to create a whiskey that fits into that palate.”
Overall, Japanese whiskey is a fraction of total U.S. sales. Suntory launched the Hibiki brand in Europe and the United States last year with sales of 6,000 cases. This year, they hope to sell 8,000 cases of Hibiki overseas and 31,000 cases of Yamazaki. To put that into perspective, 2009 total whiskey sales in the United States amounted to 46.5 million cases, according to the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council.
But with interest in spirits rising, there’s more attention being paid to all types of whiskeys, says council spokesman Frank Coleman.
“There clearly has been a whiskey revival over the last decade and consumer interest is at an all-time high,” he said. “You have the explosion in the number of small craft distillers getting into the whiskey game. Consumers have become increasingly interested in trying these new and different products, and there’s no doubt some very good whiskeys (are) being made in Japan.”
Barrel aging is key to how a whiskey tastes, and Suntory uses three kinds: American and Spanish oak and Japanese “mizunara” oak. American white oak contributes a dry flavor with hints of vanilla, the Spanish oak has flavors of raisins, chocolate and caramel and mizunara gives subtle sweetness and spiciness, reminiscent of incense.
Hibiki is a blend of more than 30 individual whiskeys, with the final blend topped off with a whiskey aged more than 30 years. Elegant and smooth, Hibiki uses old plum liqueur casks for aging some components and a bamboo charcoal filter that “just mellows out the flavor. Gives it a very sweet and gentle flavor,” Ariyoshi says.
In a nod to tradition, the Hibiki packaging has 24 facets to represent the ancient Japanese calendar that divided the year into 24 “seasons.”
At Rickhouse, bartenders pour the Yamazaki 12-year-old and 18-year-old single malts as well as the Hibiki blend. Most customers ask for it neat, although the bar has some interesting cocktails, including one involving cherry preserves.
You can get the 18-year-old Yamazaki at the Father’s Office bar in Los Angeles, too. But you have to know what to ask for.
Chef and owner Sang Yoon, who also has a Father’s Office in nearby Santa Monica, could not find a way to mesh the whiskey with his menu, but since he likes it, he kept a bottle at his L.A. location for friends. Those in the know ask for “Relaxing Times,” a tag line from a Suntory advertising campaign that was also in “Lost in Translation.”
If Murray happens to stroll in, bartenders have been advised he can just ask for “a me,” Yoon says.