Oh Bill, you make everything better. So does whisky, speaking from experience.
When I arrived in Japan I thought, here's an opportunity to learn about Japanese food and drink, mostly drink and specifically sake. Because the Japanese booze it up big time, and sake is what they drink, and when in Rome, right?
Nope. I got it all wrong.
First, the word sake (pronounced sah-keh, not sah-key) doesn't really mean what we think it means. Sake is in fact the word in Japanese typically used for salmon. What? Yeah, what we call sake is in fact referred to as nihonshu in Japan, which translates to Japanese (nihon) alcohol (shu). To make it more confusing, the Japanese word sake is also another word for alcohol in general, but not for nihonshu specifically. Don't ask me, just keep in mind that if you ask for sake over here it's highly possible they will bring you salmon.
Second, what we call sake is fermented rice brewed in the same way as beer so we're also wrong to call it "rice wine" ... dang it.
Third, sake/nihonshu isn't the most popular alcoholic beverage in Japan! That would in fact be shōchū, a completely different, stronger liquor (sake is 9-15% alcohol and shōchū is 25-35%) made by distilling barley, buckwheat, sweet potatoes, etc. Who knew? Don't get me wrong, sake is taken very seriously in Japan, but so is just about everything they make. Sake is no exception.
Fourth, one small yet very important detail – I don't actually like sake! I did make concerted efforts to appreciate it. I sampled many different kinds and grades. But they all taste like either saliva, or alcohol mixed with saliva, or alcohol made from rice water (yuck), or nothing much at all (in other words, saliva). I tried it cold, warm, hot, room temperature. By itself, with sushi, ramen, udon, yakitori. I really tried, but if something tastes like spit ... I don't know, some things you just can't force. I don't mind a little shōchū sometimes but it's like drinking weak vodka. Kinda boring.
So what's a drinking girl to do? Naturally, she moves up the chain of alcoholic beverages produced in Japan and finally hits liquid gold. Whisky. Now we're talking! And it's not just me – ask the whisky guru who recently deemed a Japanese whisky to be the best in the world for 2015. Japanese whisky is THE booze right now, and guess what? The good stuff is nearly impossibly to get your hands on ... unless you're made of money or happen to live in, say, Japan.
But I won't be seeking out the best in the world, in case you're wondering. I do however love the simple non-kanji design of these squat little 500ml bottles of Nikka Whisky from the Barrel. They're adorable and the contents are so very, very drinkable. For those of you in Japan or visiting Japan, it's the perfect little gift and great introduction for people like me who up until a few weeks ago knew exactly nothing about Japanese whisky. For those of you outside Japan, you'll have to spend more (a lot more) and the selection is extremely limited. I recommend asking your favorite bartender (you know you have one) for a taste.
Oh, and unless you've been living under a large rock, you drinkers know it's all about whisky now. This is not your pappy's cigar drink or excuse to beat his spouse anymore. Doubt me? Check out these boozin' ladies and these bars and these cocktails. You might also know that Suntory recently acquired Jim Beam, among others. Sorry patriots, but there are tons of other whiskies out there to choose from and you can probably even find one or two made locally – so hit the liquor shops this holiday season. As if you need a reason?
Back to Japan. Without explaining the last 100 years of Japanese whisky production (not that I could), just know that 1) they know what they're doing, 2) there are only eight (soon to be nine) distilleries in Japan, and 3) the Japanese distill in the style of Scottish whisky (i.e. Scotch) hence the Scottish spelling whisky rather than American whiskey (e.g. Bourbon) or Irish whiskey. If you want to know more about whisk(e)y in general this will help. And if you want to know more about Japanese whisky read this short introduction or this longer description.
But if you're like me you really just want to start drinking. Or cooking with it, whisky makes food taste so much better it's scary. I consulted the overwhelming online whisk(e)y community and landed on the informative, unpretentious blog Whiskies R Us written specifically about Japanese whiskies. This post in particular told me not only what's good but also what's affordable.
And so far ... soooo good. Cheers! or kanpai! as they say over here.
[Please drink responsibly, in other words don't be an asshole.]