The Hollywood glitz of Japanese whisky
February 29th, 2012
10:30 AM ET
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Orson Welles, Sammy Davis Jr. and Sean Connery are an unlikely trio united by more than the love of a good party in the Hollywood hills.

What linked them, and other famous faces, was their promotion of Japanese whisky, each sipping it in TV advertisements like it was nectar of the gods.

Bill Murray's sardonic character in "Lost in Translation" may have mocked the image of sophistication that Japanese whisky manufacturers liked to portray from the 1970 to the 1990s, but since 2001, Japanese whisky has been steadily picking up awards and gaining the plaudits of international whisky connoisseurs without the need for a knowing smirk or wink.

Japanese whisky (no "e" as it follows Scottish traditions in ingredients and distilling process) won top honors at last year's World Whisky Awards, with a 1984 Yamazaki whisky named the world's best single malt and a 21-year-old Hibiki awarded the best blended whisky.

The first commercial whisky distillery in Japan was founded in 1923 in Yamazaki near Kyoto, and despite there being less than ten distilleries around the country, Japan is the world's third largest whisky producer behind Scotland and the U.S.

What the country lacks in its diversity of distilleries, it makes up for in size, with most owned by Japan's big breweries. While "Lost in Translation" fans really can make "relaxing times, Suntory time," connoisseurs can compare and contrast Japanese whisky from areas as diverse as Hokkaido and Mount Fuji with Scotch from Scotland's highlands and islands.

One man who is proud to bring the best of Japan's whisky to the rest of the world is Ichiro-san with his b.a.r. EXECUTIVE, a whisky bar situated on the top floor of a skyscraper in Hong Kong. The 51-year-old opened his own little piece of up-market Tokyo seven years ago and has since been serving more than 300 types of whisky from across the world to visiting Japanese businessmen and a growing number of the city's whisky lovers.

"There was nothing like this before; it was all terrible low quality," he says referring to the bars in Hong Kong. His hand-carved balls of ice, dapper appearance and flourish for mixing cocktails are as much of a lure for the bar's drinkers as the array of tempting amber bottles.

For Ichiro, no matter where whisky is from or who may be promoting it in an advertisement, it still represents the height of quality and class. Japanese whisky, he says, is notable for the high technique in its production.

And his reasons for taking Japanese whisky out of Japan? The answer is as straightforward as the name of his establishment: "Why? Because I am Japanese and I enjoy whisky."

No Hollywood actor could have said it better.

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Filed under: Bite • Feature • Japan • Japan Eats • Sip • Spirits • Travel

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Ugh....

    Ice in good whisky!? So wrong......

    January 9, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
  2. gastrocuriosity

    Lost in translation
    8 Hours in San Francisco
    Check out for daily, enlightening articles !

    March 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  3. Kobegaijin

    Hibiki 21 year old sells on for JPY 19,310 per regular size bottle – around USD 240.00
    Yamazaki 18 year old sells for JPY 18,800 – USD 235.00
    Cheaper variations on a them available from around USD 60.00

    March 8, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  4. bill

    I love how the whisky comments are the nicest, cleanest comments on any CNN board.

    March 1, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  5. Gaijin

    I paid 1,000Yen for a shot of Hibiki 12 and it was worth it. Yamazaki is a bit more expensive but just as good. I think the best I've had was Hibiki 17. smooth.

    March 1, 2012 at 3:10 am |
  6. Liquer is quicker

    Paid 80,000 yen for a bottle of Suntory. It tasted like raw fish and soy sauce. USA USA!

    March 1, 2012 at 12:15 am |
    • the answer

      Had a bottle of American whiskey, so much calories that I had a heart attack

      March 1, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  7. Filthburger

    I've sampled a little and have enjoyed it. some day soon i'll splurge a little on a more expensive bottle of it. I've really been enjoying a bourbon called Eagle Rare, though. great bourbon for the buck.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  8. That's What's Up

    you had me at Hard Carved Balls Of Ice

    February 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  9. Tony

    I didn't see anything about price? What's the range?

    February 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  10. Adam

    Yamazaki 12-year is excellent. Bought a bottle for new years back in December... Any scotch lovers, definitely recommend you try it, the taste is more fruity though each his own.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
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