2015 was a moment in history that changed Japanese whisky forever. (And yes – it is whisky without the “e”, spelt the same way as its closest neighbour, Scotch whisky). This was the year that the reputable whisky critic Jim Murray named in his Whisky Bible a Japanese whisky – Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 – to be the world’s best, with no Scotch whiskies making it to the top five. Japanese whiskies had been slowly creeping up the ladder for years but it was this defining moment that truly altered its international reception and recognition.
Whisky, after all, is not the first thing that often comes to mind when we talk about Japanese alcoholic beverages. Izakaya scenes are often filled with images of foam-lined beer mugs, and for good reason – Japan’s finest brews (Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and the like) are popular nationally and worldwide.
At Japan Nakama, we’re big fans of Japan’s national beverage, sake, and have covered it on various occasions (See here, here and here). Now, we thought, is as good a time as any to take a closer look into their friends in the industry – Japanese whiskies.
So, what actually is Japanese whisky?
Japanese whisky is relatively young – the first distillery opened in Japan only in 1923, less than 100 years ago. Japanese whisky is most similar to Scotch whisky, as it was brought to Japan by Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist who had studied the art of distilling and whisky production as an apprentice in Speyside and Campbeltown in Scotland. On his return to Japan, Taketsuru opened the first distillery – Yamazaki Distillery – with Shinjiro Torii, then a wine importer who founded Kotobukiya (now Suntory).
After 11 years in the company, Taketsuru left to build his own distillery in Hokkaido, where the region and climate reminded him of Scotland. This would turn out to be the birthplace of Yoichi Distillery, owned by Nikka. Today, Suntory and Nikka are the two giants dominating the Japanese whisky industry, with Suntory owning the brands Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita, while Nikka owns Yoichi and Miyagikyo.
What is special about Japanese whisky?
Japanese whisky is special in various different ways, the most distinct of all is that Japanese whisky blending is typically performed in-house. In Scotland, whisky blends are typically made by combining whiskies that are produced from distilleries across the country. In Japan, however, the nature of the industry is such that whisky companies tend to own the distilleries and the brands without mixing with competitors. This means that a blended whisky such as Hibiki will be made from malt whiskies from Yamazaki, Hakushu, and grain whisky from Chita, all of which are owned by Suntory. Because of this, producers can use all sorts of pot stills for distilling the spirit, and casks of different sizes and woods (such as Japanese mizunara oak or sherry casks) to create a plethora of flavours.
Another special aspect of Japanese whisky is the superb quality of water that is used to make it. In fact, the first Yamazaki distillery was opened in Osaka Prefecture because of its proximity to the many rivers near the region, where several centuries ago a tea master had chosen to build a tea room nearby for its access to the pristine water. To see what is actually special about Japanese whisky in action, we’ve included one of our favourite scenes from the movie Lost in Translation, featuring Bill Murray.
How do you drink Japanese whisky?
There really is no correct way to drink Japanese whisky. In Japan, whisky highball is popular, in which two parts soda water is added to whiskey. For higher-end whiskies, however, it is common to have it neat or on the rocks.
So how can you get started with Japanese whisky?
Japanese whisky is infamous for being expensive, especially due to increasing interest and limited demand. In 2018, a 50-year-old Yamazaki first edition was sold for $343,000 at an auction in Hong Kong! So how do you get started? For this purpose, we have compiled a short list of 3 affordable (relatively, given the usual price range), accessible Japanese whisky for those who are keen to try.
The Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt is a non-age-statement blend containing a high percentage from the Miyagikyo and the rest from Yoichi. This has been aged for 10 years including in sherry casks.
Flavour profile from The Whisky Exchange: clove, pear, cherry, smoke, butterscotch, plums
Finally, we’ve included a video from Suntory introducing their Yamazaki Distillery:
Although the distillery is currently closed for visits, a tour can still be seen here:
From the Hakushu distillery in the foothills of Mount Kaikomagatake comes their Distiller's Reserve single malt whisky, a no-age-statement expression, that captures the smoky, herbaceous characteristics of their whiskies.
This Single Grain whisky from Suntory celebrates the quality of the grains that go into award-winning blends like the Hibiki. A true masterclass of elegance and subtle sweetness in a style made for innovators, connoisseurs and new whisky drinkers.