Scotch and bourbon once dominated the world of whisky but not anymore. A new wave of young whiskies is rising from the east.
Already, Japanese whisky is creating a tsunami of demand, so much so that they’ve entered a 10-year whisky shortage. This is partly because of the whisky’s appearance in the movie “Lost in Translation” and partly because the distilleries refused to compromise on quality—a quintessential Japanese attribute that we can appreciate despite the wait.
Then there is the Indian fire that’s not to be messed with. Famously known as a spirit akin to spicy flavoured rum, Indian whiskies take eight spots out of ten from the best-selling whiskies worldwide in 2016. But there’s a fog of controversy surrounding cereal-based whiskies in India. Poverty has driven the country to incorporate molasses as a replacement for the precious grains, which eventually contributed to its unique sweet-spicy taste.
Next up is one we’re watching with eager eyes: Taiwanese whisky—a newcomer that gained global recognition in less than a decade. The Kavalan distillery alone bagged 220 awards since its debut in 2008. An impressive feat for a distillery on a small island.
With so much hype surrounding Asian whiskies, we’ve put together a list of popular and underrated Asian whiskies to relish. There’s nothing like taking a sip of your favourite liquor while basking in the glory of your Asian pride.
Shop Sipping Eastward for a taste of three carefully selected Asian whiskies.
Recently, brands like Suntory, Nikka, and Akashi revealed a secret ingredient that makes Japanese whisky one of its kind: the luxurious mizunara oak.
The premium oak needs to be 200 years old before it can be used, thus, making it one of the most expensive types of oak. It’s not all opulence and no substance. Distilleries and connoisseurs claim that the mizunara oak imparts distinctive sandalwood, coconut, and oriental incense aromas into the whisky. It’s like taking a trip to the iconic Shinto shrines on New Year’s Day.
With all that’s been said, Japanese whisky is known for its smooth texture and light, but highly aromatic flavours; elegant yet full of life.
Photo by Suntory Whisky
Yamazaki 12 Year Old
First up on our list is the pioneer that kept the scotch distillers on their toes. Rumours of this Yamazaki being discontinued caused mild panic amongst whisky aficionados, but the distillery has yet to confirm it.
Why all the buzz on a bottle that’s not a scotch? Well, the Yamazaki 12 is not only one of the most awarded whiskies, it is also the first Japanese whisky to earn a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge.
Aged in mizunara oak, the copper-coloured spirit offers a deep, multi-layered fruity freshness of peach, pineapple, grapefruit, and orange, along with hints of fragrant sandalwood from the oak.
Anything with a reputation this high can’t be cheap and it isn’t. A bottle ranges from RM600 to over RM1,000, and may well be a special-occasion-only drink. When you get the chance, savour it down to the very last drop.
White Oak Akashi
If you’re just starting out with Japanese whisky, then the White Oak Akashi is the perfect entry-level dram for you. It’s delicate and goes easy on the nose and palate with notes of buttery hot cross buns, sweet fruits, nuts, and pepper.
The White Oak Akashi often slips under the radar unnoticed, but not on our watch. It’s a rare Japanese blend that’s aged in a variety of cask types including bourbon, sherry, brandy, wine, and even shochu—a traditional Japanese spirit made from rice, sweet potatoes, barley, or buckwheat.
The distillery’s location near the ocean in Osaka is what makes the Akashi extra special. Wafts of sea salt become one with the spirit during maturation, and the drastic shift in temperature between summer and winter adds to its complexities. There simply isn’t a dram quite like this one, so it’s worth a shot.
Miyagikyo Single Malt—Bourbon Cask
It took Nikka three long years to find the ideal location to build the Miyagikyo distillery. Then again, the Japanese do not compromise—it’s either perfect or no go. Luckily, the foothills of Miyagi managed to strike off everything on Nikka’s list, from the high humidity to the pure air that’s similar to the Cairngorm Highlands in Scotland.
The distillery lived up to Japan’s reputation for being an advanced nation wrapped in tradition. It has the most up-to-date facilities but uses old Coffey stills from the 19th century. The result? An exceedingly smooth whisky.
For this particular Single Malt, maize is used as the main grain. It differs from other whiskies in its sophisticated mix of white smoke, perfume-like tropical fruits, nuts, and spices.
If Masala tea is your thing, then Indian whisky is a must-try. Molasses aside, there is another ingredient that’s unique to India: the six-row barley, believed to enhance the whisky’s spicy characteristic. It’s not hard to imagine what Indian whisky would taste like. Think cinnamon or star anise, honey, oak, and toast or Malaysia’s favourite—roti canai.
Most Indian whiskies are young, but they should never be underestimated. Whisky matures faster in tropical climates thanks to the scorching sun and high humidity. That means a year of ageing in India is equivalent to more than three years in colder countries such as Scotland. If you do the math, a four-year-old Indian whisky is a twelve-year-old scotch. How about that?
A two-time gold medal champion from the notable Amrut Distilleries. With 50% ABV, the Amrut Fusion is in a league of its own.
You may be wondering why ‘fusion?’ That’s because 25% of its locally grown barley is shipped to Scotland for peating while the remaining 75% stays in India and is dried without peat. A terrific balance for some of that peaty smoke that’s not overwhelming.
When it comes to flavour, it's as rich as how Indian cuisine is. There’re plenty of citrus fruits, spices, and creamy goodness. Top that with coffee and dark chocolate notes. Delicious!
Paul John Brilliance
If you’d like a taste of that six-row barley, then the Paul John Brilliance is where the quality of that Himalayan grain truly stands out.
To get the best from the barley, the malt is left unpeated and the spirit without chill filtering. Taking a sip of Brilliance is taking a mouthful of juicy barley peppered with spices and soaked in orange. When it comes to texture, it’s thick and meaty.
2008 is indeed a prosperous year for Taiwan. The year brought a lot of ‘ong’ and whisky to the country when two distilleries, Kavalan and Nantou, released killer whiskies that made the world turn its head towards this unassuming island. Like their Japanese predecessors, the Taiwanese became a game-changer in producing young whiskies that challenged those who judge a whisky by its age. This, however, was initially a way to cut costs.
As whisky matures quicker in a warm climate, the Taiwanese distilleries once lost 12–15% of the spirit in angel’s share. Some were even overaged. To stay in the game, the Taiwanese took advantage of their climate and churned out younger whiskies instead.
Kavalan Single Malt
Your modern classic that humbly brags a step-by-step cultivation of the gold liquid. The Kavalan Single Malt first caught the world off guard as a dark horse and winner of Scotland's Burns Night blind tasting in 2011, defeating three scotches and one English whisky at their game.
We’ve heard of mango juice, mango desserts, mango snacks, and even mango on sushi, but have you ever tasted mango in whisky? The Kavalan Single Malt is just that—mango-heavy with a vibrancy that just fills you with delight. What can we say? All that courage and boldness in experimenting with different cask types paid off. They include bourbon, sherry, port, and wine casks, even altering between them and a few others to match the climate in Taiwan.
Omar Single Malt—Bourbon Cask
Two words: highly addictive. This Single Malt was quick to become a rare collector’s item since its launch under Nantou’s Omar and Jade Supremacy brand. What makes this expression highly sought after is the holy trinity of malted barley from Scotland, reused cask from Kentucky—home of the bourbons, and the tropical climate of Taiwan.
One sniff and the sweet, zesty notes awaken the nose. One sip and a generous amount of chocolate, toffee, and fruits fill the mouth. The taste is just enough for you to want another sip but not too much that it gets ‘jelak’—as we Malaysians like to express. If there’s a way to try this whisky, you better do, as it is getting harder and harder to find.
Raise your glass of Asian whisky up high
Without a doubt, Asian whiskies bring a diverse range to the table. There is the Japanese whisky that holds a demure but dignified expression. Indian whisky, on the other hand, is robust and packs a punch just like how their curries do. When it comes to whisky of the 21st century, it has to be the Taiwanese whisky with their endless experiments.
Who knows, maybe one day, Malaysia might be added to the list. But till then, let’s get our whisky glasses ready and wear our Asian badge with pride.