by guest writer Alexander Sawit of Cyrano Wine Selections
They ain’t posh but so what? Kaku and Black Nikka are cool in Japan.
Does it feel like every fashionable whisky drinker is into posh Japanese whisky these days? It’s understandable, given the crazy global demand for it. A decade ago, I couldn’t find a fellow Filipino who really liked the stuff. The few who had even heard of it used to answer me with bemused statements like, “Hey, that’s in the movie where Bill Murray says, “Make it Suntory time!”” Today, super premium Japanese whisky is a status symbol among Pinoys, whose wallets follow whatever the leading Western critics recommend. This has especially been the case since 2015, after the top guidebook, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, announced its selection of a Japanese whisky – the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 – as the best whisky in the world.
For me, however, when it comes to Japanese whisky, let me rephrase that saying about doing as the Romans do. That is, when in Japan, or at least when in the company of Japanese friends, learn to also appreciate their whisky the way that they appreciate it. It’s about context.
That’s something I learned because of a loyal but now departed friend, a good-natured connoisseur from Tokyo named Mr. Shimizu, who used to live up the street from my old bar in Makati (it’s been a year since he passed away, which is a timely reason for me to dedicate this article to him). I met him long before the global craze for Japanese whisky arrived in the Philippines; it was he who shared with me my first Japanese whisky, a bottle of Hibiki 12 Years, after which followed many more bottles spanning many years of friendship. During that time, I learned to appreciate all kinds of whisky from Japan – including the “wrong” kind that many Pinoy whisky aficionados overlook in their search for the posh stuff.
You see, Shimizu-san didn’t just share luxury blends like Hibiki and single malts like Yamazaki with his Pinoy pals. He was also happy to share the unpretentious, everyday stuff, which he felt we would enjoy if we would be open-minded to appreciate them from a Japanese perspective. So I opened my mind. Hence, with gratitude to my old friend, I became a fan of two of Japan’s most beloved whisky brands of all time: Suntory Kakubin and Nikka black label, called Black Nikka.
Suntory, which is one of the world’s biggest producers of distilled drinks, launched its Kakubin blended whisky in 1937 in the now classic tortoise-shell square bottle (the word “kakubin” means “square bottle”). Nicknamed “Kaku”, the blend is made with Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts, and with Chita single grain whisky. Although the recipe gets tweaked once in a while, Kaku continues to offer a familiar taste to consumers, a very light yet harmonious interplay of honey and refreshing citrus.
Nikka is one of Japan’s most historic distilling companies, having been founded by the father of the country’s whisky industry, Masataka Taketsuru (he famously apprenticed in whisky-making in Scotland, where he also famously met his Scottish wife). After launching its black label in 1956 – the brand’s familiar icon, a red-bearded Westerner called the “King of Blenders”, was added to the label in 1965 – Nikka kept evolving both the bottle and the taste. Today, Black Nikka is made using unpeated malt, giving it a taste that is even purer than that of its rival. Nevertheless, it is similarly light, with a creamier caramel quality and a pinch of blackcurrant-sherry.
Now, let me re-emphasize that Kaku and Black Nikka are NOT the best Japanese whiskies. Both have longstanding reputations for being pleasant tasting blends, easily purchased at any grocery store at affordable prices. Translation: they’re cheap, convenient to find anywhere in Japan, and predictable to the palate. No serious Japanese drinker will dispute that these are just humble whiskies…yet even the serious drinkers know how to enjoy them. As I said, it’s about context.
The Japanese have always had a knack for reinventing Western products into things that can be proudly called “authentically Japanese”. After Japan learned whisky-making from Scotland, distilleries evolved the national style away from the smokier, peatier, richer characteristics of Scotch. In Japan, the finely-tuned native palate means that subtle yet harmonious flavors are more instrumental than robust ones. To appease sensitive consumers, distilleries produced both Kaku and Black Nikka as softer, restrained whiskies (not until the 21st century did they start commercially bottling whiskies with more assertive character, winning unexpected praise from Western critics). Yet despite having two classic brands that are already milder than their Western counterparts, the Japanese adopted two strategies in order to enjoy them even more gently.
“You mix water…make mizuwari,” I somewhat recall my old friend Tatsuro eagerly telling me about one of the two strategies. “You try, you try…very nice.”
Although drinking whisky neat is perfectly acceptable in Japan, it is customary to imbibe distilled beverages in diluted form, mixing one part spirit with two parts water, with or without ice. The result, a mizuwari (meaning “water mix”), is easier to drink and gentler to the stomach. Further, it better complements the subtle flavors that define Japanese food, which is important because the Japanese are accustomed to having a proper meal when consuming alcoholic beverages (especially during the ritual of group drinking at the end of the workday, when co-workers use the disinhibiting effect of alcohol to bond as teammates). To the bewilderment of Western visitors, the whisky mizuwari is still a typical way to enjoy Kaku and Black Nikka.
“In Tokyo’s bars,” reported The Independent some years back, “what they do to Scotland’s national drink is, to the foreign eye, an abomination. The tipple of choice of the Japanese salaryman…consists of a finger or two of Suntory or Nikka whisky…drowned in five times the quantity of ice and water.” I imagine that Shimizu-san would have chuckled about that report, since the Japanese know that a mizuwari is quite welcoming with the right food to match.
I concur. If I was having roast rack of lamb or grilled porterhouse steak, I’d rather just drink my whisky neat. But serve me fresh soba and yellowfin sashimi, and the dynamics shift in favor of a mizuwari, which won’t overwhelm the soft sweetness of the buckwheat noodles and will complement the natural flavor of the tuna. Indeed, Suntory Kakubin is one of the most perfectly blended whiskies for the purpose of a mizuwari, which preserves the soft nuances of this whisky. I recommend one part Kaku with not more than two parts of cool but never cold mineral water, to bring out the floral and tropical fruit notes. That’s the traditional context for enjoying this.
Yet even with routine mizuwari consumption among old-school consumers, whisky was in worrisome decline in Japan as recently as a decade ago. Younger drinkers didn’t want to be seen touching it, as they had grown up with geriatric stereotypes of old men serving it to their business colleagues and of grandfathers having it as a nightcap before bedtime. Plus, whisky typically did not appeal to women, most of whom found its taste too strong.
Thus, it was another strategy that finally transformed whisky into a drink with universal consumer appeal, giving it an image that’s now super cool in Japan: the haiboru.
Elsewhere in the world, highballs can be made using any base spirit with a non-alcoholic mixer. But in Japan, a highball is exclusively whisky and carbonated water, typically with ice. It first became popular during the economic austerity of the post-war era, using soda water as an extender. Yet it wasn’t until 2008 that this became a socio-cultural phenomenon, when Suntory launched a game-changing marketing campaign for Kakubin using top actress Koyuki Kato, who presented the highball as a sophisticated cocktail that men and women can be seen sharing. Equally important, Suntory carefully demonstrated its Kaku highball recipe as a complement to traditional food, promoting it as a chic way to drink whisky every day with a Japanese meal.
Japan’s whisky industry has been flourishing on the back of the highball ever since. Nikka now uses popular leading man Tetsuji Tameyama to promote a connoisseur image for its Black highball recipe, while Suntory currently has another beautiful endorser, Haruka Igawa, continuing its strategy of using A-List actresses to showcase the cocktail’s appeal to men and women as the go-to drink when dining out. With different ways to customize it – a wedge of lemon, a garnish of basil, with ice or no ice, etc. – there’s no end in sight for this national love affair.
To be honest, though, for a long time I couldn’t understand Japan’s fascination with such a simple, easy-to-make cocktail. I once made one by mixing the ubiquitous American brand Schweppes with Kaku, adding a slice of lemon in an ice-filled glass, as per Suntory’s popular Kaku-hai recipe. The result was…underwhelming. What the heck were the Japanese fussing about?
Then one night, Shimizu-san arrived at my bar with cans of Suntory Soda, fresh off the plane from Tokyo. “You try, you try…very nice,” he cheerfully encouraged me, prompting me to retrieve the bottle of Kaku from the bar shelf.
Courteously, I mixed Suntory Soda and whisky over ice, with a slice of lemon, and expected another boring result. But my old friend was right. It was nice…very nice. It had the candy creaminess of fruity Prosecco, combining just the right minerality with exquisite, Champagne-like bubbles, which transported as much of the delicate whisky flavors as possible and sustained the carbonation of the drink even after a great many minutes had passed. “Sparkling water with fine, beautiful bubbles,” was what was written on the can as I pondered this surprise.
So now you know. Superior soda water, which is in plentiful commercial supply in Japan, is the big secret to why the highball is a huge winner over there. I’ve been fond of the uisuki haiboru ever since, enjoying it as something lighter and more refreshing than a cold beer. I favor Black Nikka (the “Rich Blend” variant instead of the standard version), which has that maltier, sort-of-sherried deeper taste that I prefer over Kaku, coming through with clean flavor at a ratio of one part whisky to three parts soda. And since Japanese bottled soda isn’t easy to source here in the Philippines (in Japan, the top choice of bartenders is Wilkinson Tansan), I’ve settled on F&N Club Soda Water, a Singaporean brand, as a fair substitute.
And yet…I still prefer Kaku and Black Nikka using the simplest strategy of all. Meaning, I drink them neat.
I’ll explain it this way. I love Japanese ramen…you know, the serious kind…the kind you only get at a seriously good ramen joint, with seriously good broth (tonkotsu is welcome), noodles (straight or crinkled depending on the broth), and toppings (extra chashu, please). Instant ramen? In a throwaway cup where you just add hot water? Duhhh, no serious fan will dispute that the instant kind is nothing more than a pale approximation of the legit stuff. And yet…on a cold, rainy night, when you’re at home, curled in a blanket on the couch, about to start your Game of Thrones marathon…to be honest and truthful, slurping on classic seafood-flavored Nissin Cup Noodles while you’re watching your show can be seriously good fun. There’s a right time and a right place for it.
Get what I mean? I don’t always need an earth-shakingly transcendent single malt that compels me to contemplate its awesomeness with every sip. Sometimes, I just want a simple, unpretentious whisky, one that lets me turn off my brain…something as comforting as a chocolate-covered Kit Kat during an afternoon break, or something so easy that it won’t fight for attention while I’m enjoying the eye-candy on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which is best watched with one’s brain turned off to begin with.
Mizuwari, highball, or whatever you prefer. These everyday whiskies can be appreciated by anyone who understands them the way the Japanese do…the way my old friend shared it.
As Japanese whisky continues to ascend in the opinions of Pinoy whisky aficionados, I hope that more of us can open our minds to the idea that there’s more fun to be had than just going after the posh stuff. Everything has its time and place. Ultimately, that’s what context is about, which is why Kaku and Black Nikka will always be cool in Japan.
Thanks Shimizu-san, for pointing the way. Kampai!
Cyrano Wine Selections is located in Lower Ground Floor, Madison Galeries Lifestyle Mall, Don Jesus Blvd, Cupang, Muntinlupa, Metro Manila
Alex also writes for the blog Cyrano Friends