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Why Japanese whisky works so well with food pairing

By George Koutsakis

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.

New heights

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.


Natural inspiration

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.

Unique production

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.

Flavor potential

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.


Drinking culture

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

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If anyone can find me a bottle of Nikka 15yr old single malt, please let me know.

Impossible to find in New Zealand.

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Haven't yet sampled Japanese whiskey, but looking forward to it. They do have a reputation for quality. Am curious to compare it with Scotch and American whiskey.

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I am a fan of J-whiskey & have a couple bottles on hand most of the time, but come on, lay off the propaganda eh!! This blurb is rather over the top, it makes me think the writer has not experienced much scotch outside of Japan.

I wonder does the snow or intestine length have any bearing of the favours here???

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Japanese whisky however, is part of a much different culture - one in which whisky has become a part of the social landscape

I'm not convinced this writer has ever been to Scotland or Ireland, where whiskies and Scotches - of a huge variety - are very much part of the "social landscape". I guess the Sakura glasses were on when writing this piece!

The best thing about Japanese whisky - apart from the taste - is the affordability here. You have to pay around 2 to 3 times the price for it (and most Scotch and whisky) in Australia, for example. For my money, Nikka "From the Barrel" is the best value around, if you can find it these days. Fantastic taste profile, 50 percent ABV, can be drank neat or with a dash of water/ice, and goes for about ¥2300 /500 mL bottle. Another favourite is Nikka "Miyagikyo" from up in Sendai. Wonderful dram, but the bottle never lasts very long!

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If you get the chance try some Ichiro!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Tried a bottle of Nagahama new make recently. Very different and quite enjoyable. Taketsuru pure malt is quite good... as others have mentioned Japanese whisky is good value in Japan. I still tend to look at scotch though as my go to drinks. Also had a good French single malt a couple of months back. Can't recall the name though. There is a lot of good stuff out there.

@Zenji - I wouldn't want to be paying NZ prices anyway.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@ GW & Haaa Nemui - thanks, will definitely give those drams a try soon!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I recall an event in Tokyo a while ago that paired sashimi with...Scotch whiskey.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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