Japanese whisky—it’s on everyone’s lips right now. But what do you really know about this branch of whiskey that gets much of its genes from Scotch but is a far more recent invention? You’ll get an in-depth Japanese whisky immersion, education and a delicious meal to accompany it at Sushisamba in the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Palazzo (sushisamba.com), where the spirit is celebrated in an especially grand fashion.
As a subcategory, Japanese whisky is less than a century old, with the country’s first distillery having opened its doors in 1923. So even as we’re still seven years out from its centennial, the relatively “new” spirit is especially integral to Sushisamba’s beverage program. “It’s part of the DNA of Sushisamba,” says Japanese whisky expertHayes SwopeHayes Swope, “and it fits what we are: Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian.”
The native Manhattanite joined Sushisamba in 2000 as a head server and later advanced to management with parent company Orange Brands Management. Swope worked his way through the company to arrive at his current position as the director of hospitality and training for Sushisamba globally. There are currently four Sushisamba locations—in New York City, Miami Beach, Las Vegas and London—with Amsterdam opening this summer and a second London location scheduled to debut this fall. So in his words, Swope “bleeds orange.”
Japanese whisky also happens to be one of Swope’s greatest passions. “The thing I love about [Japanese distillers] is that they’re so innovative. Scotland is deep in terms of history; they’ve been making Scotch for 500 years. They’re not changing the way they do anything, whereas the Japanese are always trying new things—different ways of aging, different climates, more than one climate, sherry casks, port casks …” Accordingly, Swope has amassed at Sushisamba the city’s largest Japanese whisky collection to date, which he debuted in mid-February 2016 along with a reservations-only, seven-course prix-fixe Japanese whisky pairing dinner.
A certified sake sommelier who has judged the U.S. National Sake Appraisals in 2012 and 2013, Swope started stockpiling the collection in 2009, born out of an interest in all things East Asian, but not necessarily with an aim of creating a whole program around them. “Through my connections with Japan and the world of sake, I made it very clear that I wanted to see anything that became available,” Hayes says of the early collection. “I started to build the list around what I call ‘the founding fathers of Japanese whisky.’ There’s an ongoing debate about who is the actual father of Japanese whisky. I tend to lean toward Masataka Taketsuru, because there’s not a whisky distilled in Japan that he doesn’t have an influence on. [Also,] it wouldn’t have been possible without Kiichiro Iwai, or Shinjiro [Torii] from Suntory.”
At present, Sushisamba’s list stands at 31 expressions, but for Swope, this is not merely a numbers game; it’s also about category depth and breadth. “While Japan’s distillers are playing and experimenting, they’re making very small batches. So they’re aging 5, 12, 15, 20 years, but only making limited amounts because they don’t know if it’s going to be good or not. Then they keep winning award after award—every World Whiskies Award for the past three years, all the major spirit competitions have been won by Japanese whiskies: single malts, blended, overall. So people are grabbing them up. But [the makers] produced 100, 500 or 1,000 bottles, and now people all over the world want it. Well, 1,000 bottles in the world is nothing.”
Clearly, Swope is eminently qualified to guide his guests through Sushisamba’s pairing dinner that begins with a welcome cocktail made with wagyu beef–infused Iwai Japanese Whisky. “It’s one of those gateway cocktails I can give to somebody who says, ‘I don’t drink whiskey,’ and they fall in love with it and say, ‘Oh, maybe I do!’” From there, the dinner bounces back and forth between dishes from regional corporate sushi chef John Um in the sushi bar and executive chef Joe Versola in the Samba kitchen, each paired with a Japanese whisky served neat, over large-format ice or in a cocktail.
Menu highlights include a crispy Minter Sweet oyster paired with a passion fruit Mars Iwai whisky sour. Both the whisky-soy marinated robata pork ribs and A-5 wagyu roll arrive with a pour of Akashi Single Malt 5-Year Sherry Cask. “Pairing whisky with a dinner is a lot harder than pairing wine, or even sake or beer,” Swope says. “Hopefully you can see where my mind was going with the pairing. Some of these dishes, as you read [the menu], your mind might tell you to go one way, and I didn’t necessarily go in that direction. I believe I was able to really pick up the nuances of the dish, to really complement the whisky and the dish, to bring out the best in both.”
Pairings can vary based on availability. Reservations are accepted no less than 48 hours in advance for parties of four or more for $250 per person. To accommodate all budgets, timelines and party sizes, a smaller three-course pairing menu is now available daily for $105, and it features the above highlights with their own pairings.
Everything in the Sushisamba Japanese whisky collection is available a la carte. So if you prefer to go it alone, here is Swope’s whisky rogue map.
For Sipping: “Go with the Nikka Yoichi Single Malt ($33), or on the more affordable side, I really like the Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt ($17), which has three different expressions: a blend, a 17-year and a 21-year. A pure malt is two single malts from two different distilleries that have been blended together. You get the really masculine, peaty smokiness of the Yoichi single malt blended with a sweeter, almost hint of sherry, in the Miyagikyo.”
For Mixing: “In cocktails, my favorite to work with is Mars Iwai ($13), mainly because it’s just very smooth, well-balanced, and has a little hint of corn, so it almost gives you that bourbon-esque feeling and flavor to it. It just blends very well.”
Something Rare: “Some of the most exclusive, very hard to find whiskies are also from the Mars distillery. One is the Mars Komagate 30-Year Single Malt ($588); there are 100 bottles available. Basically, it will not be replicated because it was originally made in a distillery that is closed and they relocated to their new location. It’s also cask strength at 122 proof, so it has a much higher kick to it. But very, very mellow in its flavors.” Other new bottles to join the lineup include Mars Lucky Cat Blended Whisky ($33) and Mars Komagatake Single Malt Revival 2011 ($56).