In New York City, it’s not hard to find burgers and pizzas nearing the $40 mark. There’s at least one steak that will set you back nearly $1,000, and a caviar-dressed breakfast omelet commanding double that cost. The world of spirits is its own animal though, with pricey pours and costly cocktails about as common as candy. For the longest time bartenders’ most brag-worthy—and typically cost-prohibitive—bottles hailed straight from Kentucky: pretty much anything under the cultishly adored Pappy family. But in the last couple of years, a new slate of coveted, highly-allocated, and indeed spendy whiskies have taken over the top shelf, and they’re Japanese by origin.

“Japanese whisky was virtually unknown outside of Japan until very recently,” begins Japanese bartending expert Frank Cisneros. First responsible for building newbie Lower East Side sushi and kaiseki den Uchu’s unparalleled collection of over 80 unique Japanese whiskies, he’s presently ensconced at Greenwich Village’s Bar Moga, curating that bottle list with a current count of 41 options.

Suntory Holdings—an Osaka-based beverage conglomerate responsible for selling everything from soda and juice to some of the world’s most desired spirits—is typically credited with leading the Japanese whisky movement, some of its most prized brands being the Yamazaki Distillery, also in Osaka, Hakushu Distillery in Yamanashi Prefecture, and Hibiki, made from a blend of whiskies distilled and aged at all three of Suntory’s facilities: Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita.

“Suntory has a wide variety of incredible single malt and blended whiskies, many of which are just available in Japan,” says Suntory brand ambassador Gardner Dunn. “So, it’s not unusual to see a Japanese bar with a large selection.” However, Dunn adds that when considering U.S. bars that count comprehensive collections, operators must go “to the ends of the earth to amass and seek out[…]exceptional Japanese whiskies.”

Revered whisky critic Jim Murray has played a pivotal role in partly why Japanese whisky is so rare today. In 2015, he named the 2013 vintage of Yamazaki’s Sherry Cask-aged whisky the world’s best in his “Whisky Bible” guide, with the spirit beating out over 1000 others from across the globe. “It was the first Japanese whisky to achieve that success, and it really blew open the doors to worldwide Japanese whisky consumption,” explains Cisneros. “Due to the unprecedented demand over the past four years, it’s become very difficult to acquire Japanese whiskies,” he adds, specifically citing the challenging nature of sourcing single malts or whiskies with an age statement. Bottles like Yamazaki 25 fetch thousands of dollars at retail, while the even more elusive Yamazaki 50 was recently purchased for nearly $300,000, making it the most expensive Japanese whisky ever sold at auction.

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“[I]t would be silly to say that the limited quantities of Japanese whisky didn’t have a huge part in sparking consumers’ interest,” admits Thomas Waugh, beverage director for all Major Food Group restaurants. But over the last half decade or so, the beverage community has embraced Japanese whisky, learning more about the spirit along the way, and ultimately understanding that there’s good reason these distillates are so in demand. And it has to do with the Japanese’s ability to create “magnificent whiskies,” with blended expressions “that [can] have just as much, or more, complexity and depth than fine single malts,” he finishes.

Waugh shares Cisneros’ affinity for Japan and spirits, and the two briefly tended bar together at Brooklyn’s hidden Japanese gem of a restaurant and bar, Karasu. At his most recent endeavor, organizing cocktails for midtown’s The Pool and The Pool Lounge, Waugh has amassed a collection of 27 Japanese whiskies. He explains, “[W]ith how limited and competitive this ordeal is these days, I just try to acquire everything I can through our available distributors.”

Typically, in the U.S., people drink pricey whiskies straight because there’s a perception that it is a “sacrilege to dilute [them],” states Cisneros, “but it’s really not.” On the other hand, in Japan, spirits like whisky are consumed with some level of dilution. “The concept of shots or spirits neat is virtually non-existent there,” continues Cisneros, who encourages his guests to sip whisky like the Japanese do, either as a highball, over a large rock, or with a splash of water. And those who visit Cisneros over at Bar Moga will nab ice cubes made from soft mineral water he brings over from Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu.

Sushi Seki’s flagship Times Square outlet on 46th Street is home to about 27 Japanese whiskies, from Toki—Suntory’s wallet-friendly, entry-level expression ($7.50 per ounce—to Yamazaki’s generally scarce Yamazaki 18 ($32.50 per ounce). And while the sushi and kaiseki haunt is celebrated for its unique sake collection, general manager Yasu Suzuki has begun to notice a change in customers’ imbibing habits, slightly leaning away from wine and beer. “We have been seeing an increasing trend with American consumers ordering more Japanese whisky to enjoy and sip throughout their entire meal,” he notes, specifically calling out Yamazaki 12 as an especially popular pour.

But that’s not to say mixed drinks are out of the question. Over at The Pool Lounge, Waugh builds his Mango cocktail with Nikka’s Coffey Grain whisky, in addition to lime, vanilla, and Aperol. Says Waugh, “I found that the tropical, almost coconut-y notes of the whisky played really well with other tropical ingredients.” Meanwhile, over at lauded Union Square sushi engagement Shuko, the eatery offers several cocktails built with Japanese whisky, including The Hokkaido Old Fashioned, a mix of Nikka Coffey Grain, bitters, demerara sugar, and orange.

For those keen to try the best of the best in Japanese whisky, visit any one of the below haunts.

American Whiskey

Number of Bottles: 10

Rare Expressions: Yamazaki Sherry Cask, Yamazaki Mizunara 18 Year

Angel’s Share

Number of Bottles: 30

Rare Expressions: Yamazaki Mizunara 18 Year, Mars Maltage 3 Plus 25, Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu Port Pipe, Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Floor Malted

Ani Ramen House

Number of Bottles: 41

Rare Expressions: Yamazaki Mizunara 18 Year, Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu Single Cask #165

Bar Moga

Number of Bottles: 41

Rare Expressions: Yamazaki Mizunara 18 Year; Ichiro’s Malt Single Cask bottlings

Fine & Rare

Number of Bottles: 17

Rare Expressions: Hibiki 21, Yamazaki Mizunara 18 Year, Yamazaki 18

Library of Distilled Spirits

Number of Bottles: 17

Rare Expressions: Karuizawa 1993 Jazz Club 12 Year Old

Made Hotel’s lobby bar

Number of Bottles: 12

Mifune

Number of Bottles: 15

Rare Expressions: Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Floor Malted

O Ya

Number of Bottles: 12

Rare Expressions: Yamazaki Mizunara 18 Year

The Flatiron Room

Number of Bottles: 23

Rare Expressions: Yamazaki 25, Yamazaki Mizunara 18 Year, Yamazaki 18, HIbiki 21

The Pool Lounge

Rare Expressions: 27

Number of Bottles: Karuizawa 1978 25 Year Old

Sakagura

Number of Bottles: 9

Rare Expressions: Yamazaki Mizunara 18 Year, Mars Maltage 3 Plus 25

Sen Sakana

Number of Bottles: 40

Rare Expressions: Mars Komagatake 30 Year Old, Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Floor Malted, Yamazaki 18, Hakushu 18

Shuko

Number of Bottles: 50

Rare Expressions:  Nikka Yoichi 15 Year Old, Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu Single Cask, Yamazaki Mizunara 18 Year, Mars Whisky Komagatake 30 Year

Sushi Seki Times Square

Number of Bottles: 27

Rare Expressions: Yamazaki 18

Uchu

Number of Bottles: 84

Rare Expressions: Yamazaki 25, Mars Komagatake 30 Year Old

Zuma

Number of Bottles: 15

Rare Expressions: Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu Port Pipe

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.

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