Imagine the scene, some 20 years ago, when a fresh-faced, enthusiastic salesperson walked through the doors of one of Glasgow’s most revered Scotch whisky bars. In their hands, a case of Japanese whisky: a spirit already popular in its domestic market, but one which had next to no profile in the UK. To the surprised bar owner it must have seemed like the whisky equivalent of bringing coals to Newcastle or selling ice to Eskimos.
Today, however, after two decades of awards and glowing opinions from whisky drinkers and the spirits industry alike, Japanese whisky is a spirit at the very top of the tree in terms of perceived quality and consumer demand.
The huge fascination with Japanese whisky has, to an extent, led to a growing interest in other Asian-distilled spirits, too. Many do not have a western equivalent and their distinctive culture is the very basis for their individual flavour profile. In fact, delve a little deeper into the eastern repertoire and you’ll discover spirits which are not only unique but have truly mind-boggling domestic sales, and some have now started to trickle through to the UK…
Whisky and beyond
The growth of Japanese whisky has really piqued an interest in all drinks from the country, including premium sake [made from fermented rice, not distilled], which is finding favour with sommeliers and in some of the more illustrious restaurants in the UK. There are now nearly 30 operational whisky distilleries in Japan – a far cry from the handful that had dominated the scene for decades – including the well-known Yamazaki and Hakushu (from Suntory, marking its 100th anniversary this year), Chichibu and Yoichi. A few of the more craft-oriented operations, such as Kanosuke in Kagoshima, are now grabbing the attention of UK whisky connoisseurs.
Also coming up fast is shochu, the domestically produced spirit that’s distilled from barley, rice, buckwheat or potatoes. Mostly bottled unaged, shochu can be single distilled (which gives a more distinct impression of its base ingredient and comes in at under 36% abv) or distilled multiple times in pot stills (not unlike Scotch whisky) and bottled at or below 45% abv. Shochu – like its close relation awamori, a rice-based spirit native to the Okinawa prefecture – has broad flavours ranging from sweet notes of dried flowers to more coastal, saline and fermented orchard fruit notes.
Home to the biggest spirit in the world
Yes, you read that correctly. While you may not have heard of it, Korean soju, a rice-based distillate, can lay claim to being the most popular spirit on the planet, with mega-brand Jinro selling a staggering 100 million 9-litre cases in 2022 alone – far exceeding the likes of Johnnie Walker or Smirnoff vodka globally. The secret to its success perhaps lies in its versatility. Not unlike vodka, soju is colourless, with little residual flavour, but clocks in at a very low abv – usually under 20%. This makes it easy to mix in cocktails or to add potency to a beer, which is a popular serve domestically.
Back to the roots of distilling
While western spirits such as Cognac and Scotch whisky have found favour in mainland China, the same can’t really be said in reverse – perhaps until now that is. Baijiu, one of the most characterful and enduring spirits produced domestically, possesses a unique flavour profile, which is now gaining greater attention in the west, thanks to its distinctly savoury notes. China has been distilling baijiu for more than 600 years, using fermented sorghum grains as its base. It is aged in clay vessels, which are porous enough to allow the spirit to mellow over time, leading to some distinct notes: stylistically ranging from a heavily fermented, yeasty character, to a bold soy sauce and an almost dry, dark cocoa powder note.
A domestic spirits goldmine
India’s love affair with whisky knows no bounds, with some of the biggest brands, such as McDowell’s, selling in excess of 30 million 9-litre cases annually. However, the spirit itself differs dramatically to whisky distilled in Scotland. ‘Indian Made Foreign Liquor’ (IMFL for short) is mostly distilled from molasses, rather than grain, giving it a flavour profile similar to rum. There are several outstanding brands, such as Paul John, Rampur and Amrut, which follow the more conventional Scottish malted barley and pot still distillation methods, and whose flavours are highly concentrated and complex, given the high temperatures in the maturation warehouses.
Indian-made gin is also developing a popularity of its own, with a heavy focus on local botanicals and citrus. Brands such as Goa-based Malhar and Greater Than are making waves with gin fanatics here in the UK. Also look out for Jaisalmer (above) – distilled in the foothills of the Himalayas and bursting with distinct spice, including domestically grown coriander, vetiver, orange and lemon peel, cubeb pepper berries, lemongrass and Darjeeling green tea leaves.
More recently, Goa saw the release of India’s first domestically grown agave-based spirit. The strict rules prohibit it being called a tequila, yet the spirit has all the vegetal characteristics of Mexico’s finest, and new craft brands such as Pistola have capitalised on the Indian agave, which grows in abundance around the Deccan Plateau area of the country.
For a really traditional taste of India, though, seek out feni. This Goan spirit, made from the cashew apple, has a crisp, spirity, fresh undertone, full of fresh-cut grass aromas, alongside a distinct nuttiness. As many as 6,000 feni distilleries are thought to exist, with 4,000 of those based in the north of Goa. Rather like Champagne or tequila, the spirit obtained a geographical indication back in 2009, meaning it has to be made in Goa. A number of the smaller distilleries make a second variety of the spirit, produced by distilling the sap collected from the coconut palms that grow freely up and down the Goan coastline.
With such a huge diversity of new Asian spirits to try, there’s never been a better time to explore these flavoursome delights and bring some exotic character and culture to your home bars and cocktail cabinets.
Six Asian spirits to seek out
3S Mizunara Fut 1569 Conquête 2009 Shochu
This cask-aged shochu distilled at the Ohishi distillery back in 2009 is a real revelation: the Japanese oak cask used has imparted a wonderful sandalwood aroma, alongside some distinctly dark chocolate flavours on the palate. Alcohol 41%
Kanosuke Single Malt Japanese Whisky 2022 Limited Edition
Fresh, with a hint of coastal salinity, Kanosuke is one of the next generation of Japanese whisky distilleries, based near the city of Kagoshima. It has already begun to impress connoisseurs internationally 1 and recently won a coveted Gold at the World Whiskies Awards. Alc 59%
Ukiyo Japanese Rice Vodka
Originally starting life as an awamori rice-based spirit, this has been redistilled into a highly characterful yet smooth vodka, which works really well as a chilled sipping spirit with sushi dishes. Wonderfully refreshing and vibrant. Alc 40%
Jinro Chamisul Soju
Officially the biggest-selling spirit in the world, Jinro’s all-conquering brand of soju has yet to create a deep footprint in the UK, but its fresh, slightly fruity, lightweight spirit style (somewhere in-between a strong wine and a vodka in flavour and abv) is perfect for a new summer cocktail discovery. Alc 16.9%
Ming River Sichuan Baijiu
Beyond Islay’s smoky single malts, baijiu is arguably one of the most acquired tastes in spirits, with its distinctly savoury, malty, fermented flavour. Ming River has developed a more western-style flavour profile, which works really well in a twist on a Mule cocktail or mixed with tonic and a dash of sweet vermouth. Alc 45%
Malhar Indian Craft Gin
Along with Jaisalmer, Malhar is one of the breakout success stories for domestically distilled Indian gins. A wonderfully well-rounded spirit, with a distinctly spicy, peppery undertone, it works as well in a more stylised Martini as it does in a traditional G&T. Alc 43%