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Learn about Japanese whisky – all you need to know

How did whisky culture enter Japan from the west, and how is Japanese whisky different from Scotch whisky?

Whiskies were first brought to Japan by the US military expeditions in the 1850s. Drawing the know-how from Scotch whiskies, now the nation is producing some of the best and most fashionable examples of the grain-based spirit, plus a pinch of its own twist.

From Suntory Toki at less than £30, to Yamazaki 55 Year Old which was recently sold for more than £600,000 in an HK auction, Japanese whiskies are not only gaining popularity among everyday drinkers but also are attracting a cult following among collectors.

Came with the Black Ships

The first records of whisky being drunk in Japan can be traced back to 1853, marked by the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s ‘Black Ships’. The US military expedition consequently ended the island country’s 220 years of intended isolation. 

The Americans invited the local officials to banquets and treated them to the amber-coloured alcohol, likely from either Scotland or America. They were apparently impressed by this rich flavoured treat – even some of the powerful Shoguns were said to have enjoyed getting tipsy by these tasty gifts, recorded Yukio Shimatani, former Director of Suntory in his book The journey of Japanese whisky to the top of the world.

Though there were records of low-quality blended ‘whisky’ being given to the soldiers during the civil war, it was not until the Meiji era, when the Japanese people were embracing Western culture and lifestyle, that the best whiskies became available on the consumer market. Although they were still seen as a luxury beverage that’s only enjoyed by the rich and powerful. 

The dawn of Japanese whisky

The nation-wide industrial revolution combined with government support generated a booming wine and beer industry. Whisky production, however, was a harder sell at that time. The lack of knowledge is one thing, the fact that whiskies demand an extensive ageing time to become drinkable scares potential investors away.

At the turn of the century, a pioneer appeared.

Trained as a businessman, Shinjiro Torii (鳥井 信治郎, 1879-1962) worked for a pharmaceutical wholesaler from an early age. Therefore, he had rare access to imported wines and spirits, which at the time were seen as medicines from the West.

In the early 1900s, Torii started an imported wine company named ‘Kotobukiya’ and made a fortune by creating a popular blended red ‘wine’ by mixing Spanish wines with sweeteners and spices.

By coincidence, he noticed that liquor aged in wine barrels after a long period of time showed some similar characteristics to those malted spirits he’d tasted before. This discovery inspired him to venture into whisky production, despite objections from his own staff.

In 1923, he established the first-ever whisky distillery in Japan – Yamazaki Distillery – in the suburb of Kyoto, an area known for its natural supply of high-quality groundwater.

Masataka Taketsuru (竹鶴 政孝, 1894–1979), who studied whisky production for three years in Scotland, was taken on board as the distillery executive. His knowledge and understanding of Scotch whisky have laid the foundation for the Japanese take of whisky. 

In 1934, Taketsuru decided to leave the company to start his own distillery, Yoichi in Hokkaido, and established the Nikka brand.

Back to Kotobukiya, in 1936, the company changed its name to Suntory. A year later, after more than a decade of trials and errors, Yamazaki Distillery released a 12-year malt whisky, marking the dawn of quality Japanese whisky. 

Kakubin Japanese whisky

The Kakubin whisky

Suntory’s first whisky was named as ‘Kakubin 角瓶’, or ‘square bottle’. The sweetly scented, golden-coloured spirit bottled in square-cut, tortoise-shell-shaped ‘bins’ is still one of the signature products of Suntory. 

Taketsuru, later regarded as the ‘father of Japanese whiskies’, launched his first commercial whisky in 1940 under the Nikka brand, named ‘Rare Old Nikka’. 

Suntory and Nikka as old-time rivals remain two of the most prominent Japanese whisky producers until today. 

They are now joined by an increasing number of artisan producers to keep on rolling out new styles and expressions of Japanese whiskies, reaching beyond mere ‘copycats’ of Scotch whiskies to gain global recognition. 

What’s the difference between Japanese and Scotch whisky?

Japanese whiskies tend to carry a strong Scotch influence, not only because of the similarities in production methods but also because of the ingredients.

Japanese whiskies

Image by Jason Goh from Pixabay

In the early years, Japanese distilleries used to be made with only domestic barleys. However, summer heatwaves and high humidity during the growing season mean that the quality of the domestic variety ‘Nijyo Omugi 二条大麦’ is lesser than those imported from Europe. Therefore almost all of the barley used to make Japanese whiskies are imported.

However, there are several elements that set Japanese whiskies apart from their Scottish counterparts, namely:

  • The collection of stills
  • Style
  • Water
  • Oak casks

To begin with, each distillery in Japan usually has a considerable variety of stills, creating a colourful range of components for the master blenders to choose from to make a ‘single malt’. 

Stylistically, Japanese whiskies tend to be less peated compared to Scotch whiskies, although there are also premium samples that take on a strong peat influence, such as the Hakushu Heavily Peated and Yoichi Heavily Peated. 

Water is another key factor that contributes to the characters of Japanese whiskies.

‘The newly established distilleries in Japan are almost all situated on spacious lands on higher altitude… with plenty of surrounding vegetation and close to quality water sources,’ said Shimatani. The former Suntory director noted that these ‘classic Japanese landscapes’ are different from those in Scotland.

Japanese distillers and blenders believe that the chemical composition of each freshwater source contributes to the unique aroma characteristics of the whiskies made.

The use of domestic oak casks, on the other hand, brings a more direct impact on the flavour profile of Japanese whiskies.

The Mizunara oak

The first casks used to age Japanese whisky were imported sherry barrels from Spain, which were previously used for Torii’s spiced red ‘wines’. However, due to a shortage of imported casks after WWII, Japanese distilleries started to use domestic wood to age their whiskies. 

Mizunara (Quercus crispula) is among the best known and rarest materials for ageing premium Japanese whiskies.

The Mizunara oak, which is predominantly found in Eastern Asia, tends to give a distinct ‘gorgeous sweet perfume’ in addition to an ‘orange hue in the amber colour’ to the whisky. After prolonged ageing, whiskies tend to pick up an increasingly ‘incense-like’ aroma, according to Shimatani. 

Without legal regulations over the choice of whisky casks, today Japanese distilleries can bring in casks from abroad without too much hardship. Nonetheless, many producers still believe that domestic oak is an essential element to the originality of Japanese whiskies.

In fact, the fame of the precious Japanese oak has caused more distilleries in the US and Scotland to start using Mizunara oak to age their whiskies. Chivas Regal Mizunara is an example.

How to enjoy Japanese whisky

Like how you enjoy your Scotch, you can drink Japanese whisky neat or on a rock. Alternatively, enjoy them by stirring in water and ice. 

However, Japanese whisky is especially enjoyed in Japan as the heart of the hugely popular cocktail, the Highball.

The cocktail is made by firstly filling the thin and tall highball glass with ice. Next, add around 50ml of whisky and top up the glass with soda water, then garnish with a wedge of lemon or grapefruit. 

The classic cocktail, with numerous variations, is widely enjoyed in diners and bars in the country. Its popularity is said to have contributed to a new boom of single malt whiskies in Japan in the new millennium.

Similar to the way you enjoy hot Shochu, you may also dilute your Japanese whisky with two-thirds of hot water as a heartwarming alternative to a hot toddy.

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Understanding Whisky Styles

Best whiskies for cocktails

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