BEIRUT: An eclectic crowd gathered in the subtly lit Shogun Lounge in Verdun, to celebrate Japanese whiskey, food and culture. Women dressed in traditional geisha attire greeted the guests, who helped themselves to small servings of sake and plum wine. The Japanese Embassy organized the event last week in collaboration with The Malt Gallery and the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Pastries, to toast to Japan’s award-winning whiskey brand, Nikka Whisky, and introduce it to a country that shares a similar bon-vivant lifestyle.
Gretta Noun, a representative of the Japanese Embassy, explained how whiskey and food play a huge part in shaping local Japanese culture.
“The Japanese [have] a very hard-working culture. They eat a lot of healthy food, but they love to drink,” Noun said.
“In Lebanon, most people don’t know about Japanese food and drink other than sushi and sake,” Noun said. This is precisely why sharing hallmarks such as Nikka Whisky is pivotal to getting people to discover aspects of a country’s culture that would otherwise be left unknown.
Speaking at the launch of the event, Aref Saade, the owner of Shogun, paid homage to the country that has long inspired many of his business relations, both in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Introducing Nikka Whisky to the attendees, Saade drew vivid comparisons from the brand’s whiskey. He described their single malt as a smooth and elegant drink, just like a Lexus, with its Scottish counterpart being rougher, more like a Maserati.
Japanese Ambassador Seiicha Otsuka spoke briefly of Nikka Whisky being named Distiller of the Year at the International Spirits Challenge in London, and described Lebanon as a unique country with a great market for Japanese whiskey.
He likened Nikka Whisky to Arak, a locally produced colorless spirit unique to the Levant.
Otsuka also shared a few words of wisdom on how best to consume Japanese food. His rule of thumb is to choose seasonal food and be knowledgeable about the food one is consuming, in order to stimulate the appetite. He also said one should consider the most nutritious combinations of food, such as sushi and miso soup.
Whiskey’s best partner, according to Otsuka, is Japanese food. He said his favorite pairing is with kaki no tane, a Japanese rice cookie snack.
Sayumi Oyama, Nikka’s brand ambassador, spoke of the brand’s history and founding father, Masataka Taketsuru, who initially worked for Suntory, now its main competitor.
Suntory announced in July that they sent 10 whiskey bottles into outer space for one- and two-year scientific maturation experiments.
During Sayumi’s narrative, three of Nikka’s whiskies were brought out for tasting: a Coffey grain whiskey, a Coffey malt whiskey and the award-winning Nikka From The Barrel.
As for taste, the Coffey grain leaves traces of apple, orange, coconut, vanilla and even cinnamon. The Coffey malt has a stronger taste of vanilla, with hints of banana and rice cake.
Nikka from the Barrel’s flavors are far more complex, as it subtly blends coffee and milk, roasted nut, praline, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, oak spices and black tea, finishing off with a spicy aftertaste.
This intricacy is no small feat, and the brand’s international recognition has been well-earned.
Josephine Obeid, from local consultancy group Add-Mind, said that her favorite was Nikka From The Barrel because of its smoother and sweeter taste, despite its higher alcohol percentage (51.4 percent compared to 45 percent).
Sayumi also shared some of her favorite pairings for each of the three whiskies. She suggested shrimp or white fish for the Coffey Grain, chestnuts for the Coffey Malt, and beef or lamb chops for Nikka From The Barrel.
Each of the whiskies was accompanied by some of Shogun’s freshest fish, offering a complete Japanese experience.
Oyama said that Nikka Whisky is best drunk with still water – a mix called Mizuori – or with tonic – known as High Ball.