At a time when sushi restaurants dot the streets of virtually every North American city and one of the most popular menu items is a roll named after not anything Japanese, but a western U.S. state—California—it’s safe to say that sushi is mainstream.
But sushi in the West isn’t quite the same as in its homeland. According to Malaysian-born chef Hing Wong, who worked for Suntory (now Beam Suntory) before emigrating to Canada and eventually becoming executive chef at the upscale Toronto Japanese restaurant Ki, there are several differences between how sushi is prepared and enjoyed in Japan compared to North America.
“North American sushi chefs are more open to experimenting and merging different techniques,” says Wong, including torching, smoking, and aging, none of which are common in Japan. Furthermore, he says, North Americans are often inclined to play with non-traditional flavors like pink peppercorns, coffee, and jalapeño.
Chef Wong notes that North American sushi-lovers tend to dip the rice side of the sushi into soy sauce rather than the fish side, enabling the sauce that’s absorbed by the grain to potentially overpower the delicate flavors of the fish. He also suggests that we tend to overlook strongly flavored but delicious fish, like mackerel.
North Americans are also more open to non-traditional drink pairings, including whisky, according to chef Wong. He never encountered whisky pairings with sushi in Japan.
Following Wong’s caveat that whisky’s higher alcohol could potentially get in the way of the more subtle fish flavors, I began my pairings with classic Japanese Highballs mixed at a ratio of three parts soda to one part whisky, using spicy, citrus-forward blends like Toki and Famous Grouse. (For more lush and boisterous whiskeys, like Nikka From The Barrel or Johnnie Walker Black, increase the water-to-whisky ratio to four or even four-and-a-half to one.) This, I found, was the best all-purpose complement to a wide variety of sushi, from vegetarian nori rolls to more complex seafood presentations.
I also experimented with several whiskies served neat. The best pairing was Nikka Coffey Grain, which has sufficient depth to match a multitude of flavors, yet is gentle enough to not overwhelm any of them.
Moving from the standard sushi combination of fish, rice, and nori to more complex preparations, it was immediately apparent that the bolder impact of spicy tuna and spicy salmon rolls demands a bigger whisky, yet even relatively light single malts and bourbons proved too combative. Enter, then, Irish whiskey in the form of the Sexton single malt, with body to equal the moderate spice of the roll and sweetness to complement, not overshadow, the fish.
For rolls that include bits of tempura, like a dynamite or spider roll, the challenge is to find a whisky with the body to balance the intricate flavors of the dish and the subtlety to let those complexities shine. To fill this bill, turn to Canadian whiskies—rye-heavy ones like Canadian Club 100% Rye when the rolls are spicy and mellower, multi-grain whiskies for when they’re not.
Finally, for nigiri (fish on rice, not rolled) and sashimi (just fish), I sampled various types with an assortment of whiskies, and found one pairing that provided a true revelation: Unagi, or smoked (sometimes barbecued) eel, was the only type of sushi that paired wonderfully with peated whiskies. It’s definitely worth a try on your next sushi order.
Three Whisky and Sushi Parings to Try
California Roll and Suntory Toki Highball
Mellow yet refined flavors in almost perfect harmony.
Spider Roll & Gooderham & Worts Four Grain Canadian
A happy marriage of complex yet restrained flavors.
Unagi & Yoichi Single Malt
A simple but sublime partnership of smoky richness.