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Japanese Whiskey Earns Shelf Space In Chicago

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Jun 25, 2014 3:30PM

Japanese Whiskey on Sumi Robata Bar's shelf (Image courtesy Sumi Robata Bar)

“I didn’t even know Japan made whiskey” was a common refrain I heard around the tables at the whiskey tasting after June Sawyer’s lecture Scotch & Sake: The Cultural and Historical Alliances Between Scotland and Japan.

Indeed Japan does make some fine whiskeys. And while they got the idea from Scotland, at this point some of Japan’s whiskeys are besting those of the Celtic territories in international competitions.

The lecture was hosted by The Japan America Society and Chicago Scots. June Sawyer is originally from Glasgow and known for her writing on Scottish culture. She told us many interesting stories about ties between Scotland and Japan, including the story of Masataka Taketsuru, who came to Scotland to study the art of whiskey and married a Scottish woman, Rita, the “mother of Japanese whiskey.” They moved back to Japan and established what is now Nikka distillery.

Three whiskeys from Nikka, distributed in the US by Anchor Distilling Company, were available to taste at the event. Two, the Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 year and the Nikka Yoichi Single Malt, were very close to their Scottish roots. The Taketsuru was balanced and smooth with buttery notes. The Yoichi was redolent of vanilla with sweet smoked apple. The Nikka Coffey Grain Whiskey, made with corn, was more reminiscent of bourbon with flavors of cinnamon and honey.

Before the lecture I dropped by Sumi Robata Bar to adequately prepare myself for trying fifteen different whiskeys with skewers of delicious grilled chicken parts. The kitchen has a shelf of Japanese whiskeys, no longer a rare sight in Chicago. Yusho (2853 N. Kedzie Ave.) offers a large selection of Japanese whiskeys from several different distilleries, Japonais (600 W. Chicago Ave.) stocks a selection of rarer expensive whiskeys, and several sushi bars like Murasaki Sake Lounge (211 E. Ontario St.) carry plenty of Japanese whiskeys to choose from.