Matsuhisa Vail is Embracing “New Era” of Japanese Whisky

Say “Kanpai!” with Pours + Pairings

When you’re enjoying unique and delicious Japanese bites at Matsuhisa Vail, a pour of Japanese whisky may not be the first pairing you consider. Beverage director Andreas Harl can readily point you toward a signature Nobu TK40 sake or an Austrian riesling (Harl’s speciality of his own heritage), but start chatting with him about Japanese whisky and you may see his eyes light up. Harl recently worked with Matsuhisa chefs and High Road Spirits market manager, Lilay Cai, to present an exclusive Japanese whisky dinner with eight paired courses at the celebrated Vail restaurant.

japanese whisky

Photo by Lilay Cai

“Japanese whisky may not go with Japanese food as well as Italian wine goes with Italian food,” Harl explained at the dinner, “but the chefs came up with these dishes that really seem to be tailored to every single whisky.”

And as standout as each dish truly was — like aged Ora King salmon with tempura shiso, citrus white soy and orange oil; tempura maitake with ume tosazu; foie and mushroom okonomiyaki with bonito — the whisky pours paired beautifully, but the stories and flavors behind each spirit also hold their own.

“The fact that Andreas has even been able to taste of these unique Japanese whiskies and bring them in for his Vail clientele is a rare opportunity,” Cai shared.

One of the eight we tried was the Akashi Goju Sherry Cask Malt & Grain Whisky, a unique and slightly sweet release from Eigashima Shuzo, a distillery in Akashi, Japan, with only seven full-time staff members. Yet this small team is impressively able to operate a thriving international Japanese whisky operation.

For some perspective, Suntory is the largest Japanese whisky brand, making over 2 million barrels of whisky per year; Eigashima Shuzo is making around 1,000 barrels per year, so quite the distinction. Even Mars, Japan’s fourth largest whisky brand, ages about 7,000 barrels per year. So, if Suntory is the emperor, Mars is a prince and Eigashima Shuzo is a baron, Japanese whisky has quite a lot of room remaining to fill out its kingdom.

“Established Japanese spirits producers have been typically engrained in tradition, but this is an opportunity for Japanese people to really experiment,” Cai explained.

Testing different barrel-aging styles, distilling in geography variations from mountains to islands, and trying unique blends that include international spirit influence — all of this is making Japanese whisky develop its growing global identity.

“Scotch and American whiskeys are well known by most customers,” shared Harl. “Japanese whisky is still somewhat new to them. The styles of Japanese whiskies vary greater than you’ll find within Scotch and bourbon. You could find a Japanese whisky finished in Sherry barrels that remind a bit of bourbon, as well as peated version that remind more of Scotch.”

Harl says he’s impressed at Cai’s portfolio that she represents for High Road Spirits, and her knowledge at the pairing dinner carried through every course. Less than a week following that dinner at Matsuhisa Vail, Cai was in Japan hosting at distilleries for the month. She explained at our dinner how the Japanese whisky category is very unique, as it’s only been around for 100 years, whereas Scotch and Irish whiskeys have been around for centuries.

“Japan is known for their quality of things, their attention to detail, the meticulous nature of refining; they have taken things that already existed and made them better — cars, electronics, beer, gin, whisky — everything that they dabble in, everything is just so refined and beautiful,” Cai said. “And we’re now in this new era of Japanese whisky production that’s just very exciting.”

Unsurprisingly, Matsuhisa Vail carries a robust variety of Japanese whisky. Harl says they’ll have between 20 and 25 different offerings at any given time.

“We’re lucky we get access to many rare selections and feature many from the small and large producers,” Harl said. “Yet I think there’s a whole world that we still haven’t gotten into.”

Whether you’re a little curious or a full connoisseur of Japanese whisky, go see Harl at Matsuhisa Vail to raise a glass and a “kanpai!”

japanese whisky

Photo by Kim Fuller