Japanese whisky is an old tradition that gained worldwide attention in early 2000's
Japan began producing whisky in 1870, but commercial production did not take off until 1920 when Masataka Taketsuru returned from Scotland having studied the art of distillation. Shinjiro Torii, who founded Torii Shoten—Japan's first whisky distillery, which would later become Suntory—, hired him to produce a whisky for Japanese people. Japanese whisky thrived as a mostly domestic phenomenon until 2003 when Yamazaki 12 Years Old won gold at ICS (International Spirits Challenge). The momentum continued when a Suntory-produced Yamazaki whisky took home the title of 2015 World Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible. A new, internationally-renowned whisky culture was born.
Malted Barley alone does not a Japanese Whisky Make
Quality Water The town of Yamazaki was once referenced in an ancient poem for its crystal-clear mineral waters that enchanted legendary tea master Sen no Rikyu. In 1923, Shinjiro Torii opened Japan's first distillery in Yamazaki.
Climate Three rivers converge near Yamazaki creating nearly year-round thick mists. The shifting temperatures combined with the high humidity create the perfect environment for whisky maturation.
Wood The barrels used in Japanese whisky production are indigenous to Japan. During the humid summers, the wooden barrels expand and absorb the whisky. In the winter the barrels dry out and infuse the whisky with the aroma of the wood.
High Altitude Distillation Japanese distilleries sit at higher altitudes than most. Higher elevations allow greater control over distillation as temperature is one of the most important factors in distilling high quality spirits.
The big names in Japanese Whisky
In 1899, Shinjiro Torii founded Torii Shoten which would later become Suntory. He dreamt of a whisky-loving Japan. After World War I, Torii met chemist Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru had just returned to Japan with his Scottish wife Jessica Cowan from the University of Glasgow, where he studied chemistry and scotch production. In 1923, Torii and Taketsuru founded Japan's first malt whisky distillery in Yamazaki. Six years later, they released Suntory White Label, Japan's first genuine whisky.
Suntory Yamazaki distillery is located in Yamazaki, outside of Osaka. Yamazaki is one of three distilleries managed by Suntory in Japan, the others being Chita and Hakushu. It was the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 that took home the title of World's Best Whisky in 2015 and turned heads worldwide. This silky smooth, fragrant whisky is less peaty than most and resembles a Lowland scotch.
After Masataka Taketsuru left Suntory he decided to open his own distillery modeled after the distilleries of Scotland. In 1934, he broke ground in the cold northern regions of Hokkaido and founded Dai Nihon Kaju, which was later renamed Nikka. Today, Nikka operates out of a second distillery as well. The Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt is a blend of single malts from both distilleries and is rested in former bourbon and sherry casks for a long, slightly smoky finish.
Respected at home, relatively unknown abroad
Not all Japanese whiskies are top-dollar award winners. Some excellent, lesser-known offerings are available in Japan. For a refined and time-tested Japanese whisky, try a Yoichi Single Malt. Kirin Whisky Fuji Sanriku is an excellent, alcohol-forward whisky that is great for highballs in summer. It is unique among Japanese whiskies as its aroma and flavors are similar to that of bourbon. The brand was discontinued in 2018, but if you can find a bottle, try a glass. For a younger, non-age-statement whisky, try Akashi White Oak Single Malt. It has a strong aroma of oak and a punchy finish that calms down after a bit of time breathing in the glass.
Taste History at a Japanese Distillery
Japan whisky distilleries are generally open to the public at certain times, and the major distilleries have gift shops. A distillery tour is a great way to learn about and try some Japanese whisky. The major distilleries all offer tours that you can find more information about on their websites. Please note that most tours are not conducted in English. Plan well ahead, as even small distillery tours book out far in advance.
The Yamazaki distillery tour is the most well known. Its English language tour is only held four times a month and includes a tasting. The Hakushu distillery in Yamanashi also offers a comprehensive tour and tasting, but only in Japanese. The Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido offers daily tours in Japanese, but headsets with English translation are provided. Tours during winter may be canceled due to heavy snow. The lesser-known Mars Shinshu distillery is Japan's highest altitude distillery, located in the Southern Alps. The Hombo clan has been distilling since 1949. They offer a 30-minute tour that includes a tasting. Tours are in Japanese, but the experience is worth it regardless. Visit the website to make a booking via email.
Where to drink Japanese Whisky
You can find Japanese whisky all over the country. Japanese hotels often feature quiet bars with plenty of Japanese whisky in stock. Visit any izakaya to try a highball or other Japanese whisky cocktails. Hole-in-the-wall bars all over the country pride themselves on their whisky lineup and are a great place to build your taste profile.
The Suntory lineup—Hibiki, Yamazaki, Chita and Hakushu—is a delicate balancing act of aromas. These are best enjoyed neat or on the rocks. Japanese bartenders take pride in their ice carving abilities and will serve these varieties with only the best ice cubes. This prevents water from melting into your glass.
The lesser-known Japanese whiskies may not have all the awards of the Suntory lineup but there are many excellent options. The most common combo ordered at izakaya across Japan is a highball and karaage fried chicken. The hot, battered chicken pairs wonderfully with a dry, fizzy highball. Go with a simple Suntory Kaku or Nikka whisky. Most restaurants in the major cities will carry one or the other. These simple, refreshing drinks are a must for the hot Japanese summers.
All information is correct as of March 2019.