In the West, whisky is typically associated with solitude, relaxation, and contemplation - something to be savored after dinner, perhaps by the fireside... Japanese whisky however, is part of a much different culture - one in which whisky has become a part of the social landscape, and a popular food pairing option. It is, of course, perfectly possible to match any variety of world whisky with food, but certain distinct characteristics make Japanese varieties particularly enjoyable at lunch and dinner, or even with snacks and nibbles.
Since Japanese whisky brands are rising in prominence across the world, it’s getting more and more likely you’ll encounter a bottle at your favorite restaurant, or on the shelf of your local store. Given the spirit’s popularity, you may already be thinking of the possibilities for your next dinner party or meal out - but don’t go in blind: before making your plans, discover why Japanese whisky works so well as a food pairing, and choose a bottle which suits both your menu and your palate.
Japan’s whisky distilleries are, collectively, among the highest in the world, with many situated around 700-800 meters above sea level in the country’s spectacular alpine regions. Crucially, high altitude whisky production involves a lower boiling point which helps producers more easily separate the spirit itself from undesirable chemical congeners within it. This factor has two useful effects: it renders a silkier, smoother-textured whisky, far more suitable for pairing, and expands the whisky’s nose - by retaining a greater range of natural aromas which might be matched to food.
Reflecting the effects of high altitude distillation, whisky flavor profiles are also heavily dependent on the natural environment in which the spirit is distilled. In Japan, this factor is particularly significant: many distilleries are located in areas of unspoiled natural beauty, benefiting from clean air and using water drawn from sources known for their purity - like snow-fed alpine streams. The purity of the water used for Japanese whisky distillation translates to almost every aspect of the spirit’s character - that is, the sweeter, lighter characteristics which don’t overpower the flavors of food pairings.
While broadly following the conventions of Western scotch, certain factors make the production of Japanese whisky unique - and open up interesting possibilities for food matching. Rather than American or European Oak, many distillers in Japan choose to age their whisky in Mizunara Oak,which imparts notes of wood, rich spice and fruit - and pairing possibilities with a variety of foods, not least well-known Eastern staples. Bamboo filtration is also used by many Japanese distilleries - instead of, or in addition to traditional charcoal filtration: the bamboo has the effect of mellowing the spirit - and contributes to its sweeter, food-friendly profile.
Thanks to a historic culture of experimentation and innovation among distillers, Japanese whiskies can hit a broad and evocative range of flavor profiles, ranging from rich, sweet, and fruity, to bitter, spicy and nutty. Hints of salinity are also a common feature of the Japanese spirit - perfect for matching the prominent umami characteristic of Asian food. This range, combined with the popularity of blended whisky varieties in Japan means balance and nuance are crucial to the distillation process - and makes the act of food pairing something of an art form. Unlike Western distilleries, individual Japanese distilleries typically produce a particularly wide range of whisky varieties - so drinkers can explore a spectrum of flavor potential from a single producer.
Japanese whisky has evolved a drinking culture quite distinct from any other in the world. While whisky is not intuitively associated with the restaurant scene in the west, in Japan it’s very much a part of the social landscape - to be enjoyed, if so desired, with friends and family at bars, in restaurants, or around the dinner table. The lightness, flavor-versatility and smooth texture of Japanese whisky itself means it doesn’t "overpower" either the occasion or the food, so it works as well in casual eating settings like lunch and snacks, as it does with special occasions and dinner reservations.
Highball and cocktails
The most popular way of drinking whisky in Japan is in the "highball" style - which essentially means serving the spirit with soda water and ice - and maybe a slice of lemon. The highball lends itself to the same "lighter," casual drinking style that helps Japanese whisky go so well with food - in fact, the style is so popular that the drink can even be bought from vending machines in cans. The versatility of Japanese whisky also makes it an ideal companion for cocktails, which opens up a new range of food-pairing possibilities, not least with desserts and snacks.© Japan Today