Whiskey snobs have a lot to gripe about; it’s in their nature. But one of the most common complaints amongst brown spirit enthusiasts is the idea of using whiskey in cocktails. Defiling a fine, aged whiskey with other ingredients—aside from water or ice—sends them into a fury. And it’s not just limited to bourbon enthusiasts. When scotch cocktails became a trend in bars, scotch purists were outraged that anyone would even think to defile a single malt with citrus and sweeteners. The same can be said of Irish whiskey, and now Japanese whisky.
Japanese whisky is even more highly allocated than most bourbons or single malt scotches. And it’s usually twice the price. So it’s understandable why Japanese whisky lovers might feel like it should only be sipped straight. But we say, go for it.
What these whisky drinkers are missing is that one of the most traditional ways of serving Japanese whisky in Japan is in a Highball. Japanese drinkers rarely drink their whisky straight, preferring to drink it with a topper of seltzer. It was just a matter of time before American bartenders caught on to Japanese cocktails—especially considering how popular Japanese whisky has become stateside.
In New York, Legacy Records serves a variation on the Japanese Highball with Akashi White Oak Japanese whisky, umeshu plums, Reisetbauer Plum Eau de Vie, shiso and soda. The cocktail has the feel and structure of more traditional Japanese cocktails, albeit slightly Americanized. “The Stone’s Throw was meant to be a Whisky Highball for the colder months,” says Jeff Bell, who curated the cocktail menu at Legacy Records. “Typically, the drink is just whisky and soda, but the addition of umeshu gives the drink a little sugar, which helps the body retain sweetness after adding a few ounces of soda.”
While Japanese Highballs continue to populate menus across the country (they’re even served in baseball stadiums), there are also bartenders working on a new breed of Japanese whisky cocktails. And while certain snobs may gasp, we, as Japanese whisky fans ourselves, couldn’t be more excited. Here are four new ways bartenders are using Japanese whisky.
Japanese Whisky in Tropical Cocktails
New York City bartender Thomas Waugh, the bar director for the Major Food Group, has incorporated Japanese whisky into his menus at both The Pool Lounge (inside the much lauded Grill) and at The Lobster Club. At The Pool, Waugh uses Nikka’s Coffey Grain whisky in his Mango cocktail. A tropical riff on a Whiskey Sour, the drink mixes the whisky with mango puree, lime juice, saline solution, vanilla syrup and Aperol. “Like all of the cocktails at The Pool Lounge, the aim is to amplify the ingredient that is chosen to be the center stage,” says Waugh. “In the case of the Mango, the Nikka Coffey Grain gives the drink a tropical coconut flavor. It's good to understand that Japanese whiskies are very versatile and span a broad spectrum of flavor depending on their style.”
Japanese Whisky in Dessert and Digestif Cocktails
At The Lobster Club, Waugh uses Japanese whisky in two different cocktails, both suitable for after dinner sipping. The Banana Goto pairs Japanese whisky with espresso, cacao liqueur and banana-infused whipped cream. Highlighting the wheated, honey notes found in blended Japanese whisky (like Suntory’s Toki), the cocktail is almost like an extra classy Espresso Martini. Waugh’s take on the Rob Roy—appropriately named the Soba Rob Roy—mixes Japanese whisky with Benedictine and a touch of Grand Marnier. “The Soba Rob Roy was created because of my love of soba tea,” says Waugh. “Instead of using soba tea we steep dried buckwheat [in the whisky]. The flavor [of buckwheat] works very well with a number of Japanese whiskies.”
Japanese Whisky in Absinthe Cocktails
Across the country at the new Death & Co in the Ramble Hotel in Denver, Colorado, beverage director Tyson Buhler uses Japanese whisky in two cocktails on the debut menu. A far cry away from the Japanese Highball, Buhler’s cocktails are not only playful and refreshingly modern, but also extremely drinkable. The Kanzen, which is somewhat a variation on a Sazerac, mixes Hibiki Harmony (a blended Japanese whisky from Suntory) with a mango brandy, honey, maraschino liqueur and absinthe. “There’s a subtlety in Japanese whiskies that’s often lacking in other whiskies,” says Buhler. “Often the oak used in whiskey production is the star of the show, and while that’s not necessarily a negative, the nuance of the base product can be lost. The tropical fruitiness of the mango brandy pairs very well with the malty woodsy flavors [of Hibiki Harmony].”
Japanese Whisky in Tiki Cocktails
The other cocktail at the new Death and Co. that uses Japanese whisky is Buhler’s Bad Sneakers, which takes the spirit in a tiki-esque direction. Made with a split base of Suntory Toki and Islay scotch, the drink also includes citrus, cinnamon and coconut cream. Like a smoky Piña Colada, the cocktail is rich, layered and velvety sweet. “The soft, light grain of the Suntory Toki is the perfect complement to the coconut flavor,” says Buhler. “Believe it or not, coconut and malt whisky play off each other beautifully. I see no reason to stifle creativity by only sticking to Japanese ingredients when using Japanese whisky. There are many styles within the category that allow it lots of flexibility within cocktails. There’s certainly something to the adage of what grows together, goes together, but there is a world of possibilities outside of Japanese ingredients.”