Right now, at this very moment in time, the best Japanese whisky selection in Houston is found at Kata Robata. That's because Kata and sommelier/beverage director Steven Salazar have stocked the sushi joint with all of the imported Japanese whisky the state allows.
To be clear, Texas has only cleared six Japanese whiskies for import—four of which are from the famed Suntory distillery in Shimamoto (between Kyoto and Osaka), and two of which are from competing distillery Nikka, headquartered in Tokyo.
It's safe to say most Americans have only a passing familiarity with Japanese whisky—mostly thanks to the commercial Bill Murray's beleagured character films in Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation. "For relaxing times," Murray repeats ad nauseum throughout one scene, "make it Suntory time."
Salazar wants Americans to know that Suntory and other Japanese whiskies aren't just movie props, however. "This isn't Scotch," Salazar said, since all Scotch must be made in Scotland. "But this is mostly single malt whisky." He grabbed a bottle of Suntory's 12-year-old Yamazaki from behind Kata's bar and poured a sniff of the pale gold liquor into a shot glass to demonstrate one afternoon last week. "It's simple but complex. Delicate. Creamy." Salazar compared it to the sweet smoothness of a Glenlivit 12.
He then poured a few drops of the Yamazaki 18-year into another shot glass to compare the two side-by-side. The 18-year-old whisky is an intense auburn color, the additional six years of aging bestowing not only a darker hue but smoky notes that reminded me of a Laphroaig 18.
The Yamazaki 18 is considerably more expensive than its younger sister, but Salazar has another single-malt from Suntory that's as affordable as the Yamazaki 12: Hakushu, which tastes—as The Whiskey Exchange accurately describes it—of "subtle smokiness and...sweet poached pears." Then there's the Hibiki, a blended whisky from Suntory, that I could imagine sipping more easily than any of the other five Salazar sampled for me.
I spotted chef Horiuchi Manubu across the restaurant during our tasting session and called him over to ask which was his favorite. "Oh, Hibiki," came Hori-san's swift reply. "Definitely Hibiki." The blended whisky is aged in ume casks, which imparts the sweet flavor of the Japanese plum wine and underscores the delicate fruit notes in the liquor. Or, as the tasting notes on The Whiskey Exchange put it far more ably than I:
Slips down easier than a greased eel in an oilslick. This is tremendous. A hugely impressive feat of blending that proves, if there were any remaining doubt, that Japanese whisky can equal or beat anything produced in Scotland at this moment in time.
Salazar also poured samples of the two Nikka whiskies, a 12-year-old Taketsuru and a 15-year-old Yoichi. The story goes that Nikka whiskies possess a fiercer, saltier quality to them thanks to a water source that lends a sort of terroir to the liquors. Like the Hibiki, the Taketsuru is a blend with some subtle fruit notes. Unlike the Hibiki, however, there are strong peat notes to balance out the sweetness. The Yoichi is a single-malt whisky new to Texas this year, and the most expensive of the bottles just behind the Yamazaki 18. The Yoichi retails for $110 per bottle and the Yamazaki 18 for $172.
You can order any of the six whiskies by the glass at Kata Robata, although there's another way to enjoy them: in one of Salazar's whisky cocktails. His colleagues in the spirit industry were wary of his choice to shake such delicate whiskies into mixed drinks, laughed Salazar, but the results speak for themselves.
In his cocktail "Huge in Japan," for example, Salazar doesn't just enhance the smoky flavor of the Yamazaki 12 but layers more smoke on top: lapsang tea and mezcal are blended together with the whisky. Salazar then adds Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur, chocolate bitters, and yuzu to cut through the peatiness and garnishes the drink with a shiso leaf topped with a scatter of tea leaves.
Salazar has a few other whisky cocktails up his sleeve at Kata Robata, with one to suit nearly every palate—as long as you like a good whisky. He's headed to Japan in November for vacation, during which he plans to visit as many whisky distilleries as possible. Salazar just passed his Certified Sake Specialist exam at the recent TEXSOM wine education conference in Dallas and plans to take a similar Japanese whisky exam next year—in Japan. Perhaps by then, the TABC will have allowed a few more of those precious whiskies into our state.