Our columnist discovers that to the Japanese, whisky and water isn’t just whisky and water.
RECENTLY, I came upon a Japanese manga called Bartender, which is about, well, a bartender in Tokyo called Sasakura Ryuu.
In the very first story arc of the manga, Sasakura is called upon to audition for the position of bartender at a prestigious hotel. Told to make a drink, any drink, for the manager, Sasakura makes a Mizuwari, which is essentially two parts of cold water mixed with one part of the spirit over ice.
Meaning “mixed with water”, “Mizuwari” is actually a very common way of serving spirits, not just whisky, in Japan. It’s a practice that was derived from a traditional way of drinking shochu, but in recent times, has become more associated with whisky.
To get an idea of what a Mizuwari tastes like compared to normal whisky and water, I decided to head to Omakase + Appreciate, where bartender Shawn Chong demonstrated the technique using the Japanese whisky, Nikka, which is distributed locally by Tong Woh Enterprise (TWE).
Founded in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru, Nikka Whisky is one of the two biggest whisky producers in Japan. The company produces single malt whisky from their two malt distilleries, Miyagikyo and Yoichi; blended whiskies such as the unique square-bottled From the Barrel and the popular Black Nikka; and also Pure Malt bottlings such as the highly-regarded Taketsuru Pure Malt.
As far as the whisky goes, Nikka could not have been a better choice for our venture into Japanese whisky serves. Each of the three whiskies we used on the day – the delicate and fruity Miyagikyo 12YO, the slightly heavier and peated Yoichi 12YO, and the complex From The Barrel – had their own unique characteristics, which brought out different qualities in the drinks that Chong made.
But first, let’s talk about ice. Ice is undoubtedly one of the most important elements in drinks, and can be used in many different ways. Omakase + Appreciate uses ice made with a Hoshizaki ice-making machine, which makes a solid, compact kind of ice that doesn’t melt quickly.
Using this ice, Japanese bartenders have perfected the art of carving ice balls by hand. Of course, these days there are moulds and machines that can do that for bartenders, but nothing beats watching a bartender carve a single block of ice into an almost perfect sphere of ice right before your eyes.
“It took hours of training to be able to do this,” Chong said. With an ice pick in one hand, and a large slab of ice in the other, he then launched into a flurry of chips and chops that miraculously turned the ice into a perfect ball of ice within minutes.
Using an ice ball in a glass of whisky has several advantages over the usual ice cubes. First of all, it looks really, really cool in a rock glass. Secondly, and most importantly, the ice ball melts a lot slower than the smaller cubes do, thus ensuring that the whisky doesn’t get diluted with water too quickly.
For the Mizuwari however, Chong used some large ice cubes instead, stacking them up inside a highball glass before pouring a shot of whisky over them and stirring it, slowly, deliberately, and always in a circular motion (a little Internet research revealed that Japanese bartenders stir the whisky thirteen and a half times, though it’s never quite explained why).
Once that is done, Chong then added the two measures of cold water, and stirred it several times again (three and a half times, apparently), before adding the final touch – using his bar spoon, he lifted the tower of ice inside the glass several inches, and let it back down. “This is to make sure the whisky and water are mixed properly,” he said.
According to Chong, the Mizuwari style tends to favour sweeter, fruitier whiskies over the heavier and peatier ones. For the demonstration, he made two glasses of Mizuwari, one with Nikka’s Miyagikyo 12 Year Old Single Malt whisky, and the other with the heavier Yoichi 12 Year Old Single Malt.
The difference between the two was quite distinct – the Miyagikyo Mizuwari was extremely well balanced, and despite the addition of water, the flavours of the whisky remained the same, albeit in a slightly easier to drink and more refreshing form. The Yoichi Mizuwari, while well balanced and refreshing as well, didn’t come through as well, because the heavier flavours of the whisky seemed to contrast with the refreshing coolness of the water and the ice.
“For the heavier, smokier whiskies, it is better to use the Highball serve,” said Chong.
The Highball has been mentioned several times in this column before, but it bears repeating here because no article about Japanese whisky serves would be complete without it. By far one of the most common ways of drinking whisky in Japan, Nikka even has canned versions of the Highball purely for the Japan domestic market, using their Black Nikka and Taketsuru 12 Year Old.
The Japanese whisky Highball is basically a whisky and soda, but of course, in Japan it is more than just that. Some people consider the Mizuwari and the Highball as one and the same, but the difference is that one uses water and the other uses carbonated soda water.
According to Chong, this serve tends to favour the more heavier peated whiskies, and sure enough, the highball made using Yoichi was a lot tastier, because the stronger and slightly peatier flavours of the whisky comes through better in the soda than the lighter Miyagikyo, which got somewhat lost amongst the carbonation.
This was of course, just a very rudimentary peek at the world of Japanese bartending (Chong isn’t formally trained in Japan, by the way), and I was well aware that we had not even begun to scratch the surface of the subject. Nevertheless, thanks to the Nikka whiskies we had and Chong’s skill as a bartender, it was still quite an eye-opener, and I look forward to the day when I can meet and interview an actual Japan-trained bartender to get a much better look at this fascinating world.
Omakase + Appreciate is located at Bangunan Ming Annexe, Jalan Ampang. For more information, visit their Facebook page: facebook.com/OmakaseAppreciate.
Michael Cheang likes his Mizuwaris and Highballs with an extra shot of whisky. He’s greedy like that. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.