Japanese whisky is among the most sought-after booze on the planet. It's also some of the most intimidating. And how could it not inspire uneasiness, when a 35-year-old bottle of the stuff can fetch northwards of $28,000? But not all barrel-aged spirits from the Land of the Rising Sun cost more than your first car. There are a number of notable exceptions: fantastic, affordable brown liquor, some of which is imported directly into San Francisco, awaiting exploration. Here are some bottles and bars to kick-start your journey.
Although initially inspired by the legendary malts of Scotland, many Japanese whiskies now assume a stature beyond their venerated forebears. Point in case: Hibiki 30 Year Old. Pretty much reserved for the hedge fund crowd at this point, the patiently matured, amber-hued spirit will set you back about three grand. And that's if you're lucky enough to even come across a bottle of the aggravatingly exclusive blended whisky. For everyone else, here's a dirty, little secret: Barely any booze on the planet is worth such a stately sum. At that level, it's conspicuous consumption, and all about prestige — albeit devilishly alluring to consume.
You need not be priced out of the Hibiki portfolio, however. Released in 2015, Harmony is a beautiful blend for the 99 percent. The elegant, faceted bottle holds a combination of malt and grain whiskies from three distinct Japanese distilleries — all owned by Suntory — fused into a smooth, honeyed union. While it wields no age statement, this detracts more from the status than the flavor. You'll find it on the shelf at The Jug Shop (1590 Pacific Ave.) and at most Bevmos, priced at around $70 for 750 ml. If you're dying to know what the fuss is all about, you won't find a better entry-level Japanese whisky.
Also riding the rail of accessibility are a number of entries from Nikka Whisky. Distributed by Anchor Distilling, the brand enjoys an increased presence here in the city. One of their most appealing expressions is also one of their most readily available:Coffey Grain. Named after the traditional column stills used to produce it, this grain whisky goes down easy, imparting a spiced, burnt citrus essence in its wake. It generally commands about $65 a bottle, as does the Taketsuru 12 Year Old Japanese Pure Malt Whisky. This superb specimen, aged for not less than 12 years, is a comparative bargain.Enjoy it neat, with perhaps a drop of water in the glass to better understand its intricacies. Then try it as a bourbon substitute in a Manhattan. Look for both bottles at The Whisky Shop (360 Sutter St.) or at K & L Wine Merchants (766 Harrison St.) in SoMa.
And speaking of cocktails, San Francisco is blessed with one of the most expansive Japanese-themed watering holes this side of the Pacific: the Nihon Whisky Lounge in the Mission. It's a great place to taste through a broad selection of Japanese single malts, which you'd be hard pressed to find in local liquor stores. But the real fun here is experimenting with any number of playful concoctions, incorporating whisky with lively suitors. TheBlond Geisha, for example, blends citrus fruit, Chartreuse, egg white, and shiso leaf for a tart, refreshing flip served in a Glencairns glass. A knowledgeable staff behind bar will help you up your game.
A narrower, if somewhat wackier array of whisky cocktails is available in the Financial District at Pabu Izakaya. It remains the lone outpost in the city in which to partake in a foie gras-infused Japanese whisky cocktail. The $27Old 'Foie'shionedis built around fatted goose liver, steeped in Nikka Coffey Grain. Balancing out the savory overtones is pickled stone fruit, which carries a comforting sweetness to the finish line. While it's not for everyone — namely, vegetarians — those without dietary restrictions (or conscientious objections) ought to experience it, at least once.
Even traditionalists will find something to celebrate in Pabu's Classic Lolita, a less-expensive and less-meaty take on the Old Fashioned. Here, American whiskey is replaced with Mars Iwai, a sweeter, predominantly corn-based Japanese equivalent of bourbon. Slightly creamy in mouthfeel, with a brief finish that hints at vanilla, it's a distinctive offering worth trying neat. And if you like what you taste, bottles currently retail at only $35 at local liquor stores. At a slightly higher price point, Iwai Tradition is worth the upcharge. A blend of malt and grain, its flavor and body almostsuggest aged brandy — more so than whisky. Although both Iwai selections pale in comparative complexity to the more exclusive, Scotch-inspired Japanese single malts, they are procurable, easy-drinking indicators of how diverse the category can be.
If you think you're ready to graduate to the big leagues of Japanese booze, your timing is impeccable. At the beginning of the month, one of the world's most coveted whiskies, the Yamazaki, unleashed the 2016 edition of its Sherry Cask. Offering a rich, stone fruit finish, the no-age-statement single malt, veils a gentle heat from its 96 proof body. Only 5,000 bottles of theSherry Cask 2016have shipped globally. (Jim Beam, by comparison, sold about 80 million bottles of bourbon in 2015.) All you'll need to secure yours is $300 and a prayer.