Whiskies of the World: Japanese Whisky
Welcome to this week’s edition of Whiskies of the World; the series that teaches you about different nations’ whiskies and how they came to be. In this edition, we’re delving into the world of Japanese Whisky, one of the rising stars in the international spirits market.
The Japanese have been producing whisky commercially since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that it was exported, and the early 2000s before it was internationally recognized. Today, Japanese whisky is highly regarded for its unique blend of heritage and innovation, resulting in some exciting flavor combinations.
Today, we’ll be learning all about the history of Japanese whisky, what makes it unique in the spirits world, as well as recommending some choice bottles for you to sample. So, tulip glasses at the ready – let’s dive in!
20 years ago, the mention of Japanese whisky would have likely left non-native connoisseurs with blank faces. But, since the early 2000s, the rise of Japanese whisky outside of Japan has been meteoric. Japanese whisky owes a great deal to Scotch – indeed, as we’ll find out, Scotch is what it was initially modeled on – but, it quickly evolved into own beast, thanks in no small part to its distillers’ innovative production methods.
Produced in Japan since the 1800s, the commercial availability of whisky in the country came much later than in other whisky producing regions. Japan’s whisky boom began in the 1920s, with two whisky distillers at the forefront – Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torri.
Taketsuru’s interest in spirits was in his blood – he came from a family of sake makers – and he travelled to Scotland to study whisky distillation shortly after World War One. Obtaining a degree in chemistry from the University of Glasgow and serving apprenticeships at several Scottish distilleries, he returned to his native country in the early 1920s and connected with Shinjiro Torii – a fellow Scotch lover who had started his own alcohol import company.
Somewhere between 1923 and 1924, the pair opened the Yamazaki distillery under company name Kotobukiya. But, Taketsuru and Torri’s opinions on the best ways to distill whisky soon diverged, with the pair spitting acrimoniously in 1934. Taketsuru left, forming his own company – Dai Nippon Kaju – and building the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido.
If you’re a casual Japanese whisky drinker, you probably won’t recognize the names Kotobukiya and Dai Nippon Kaju. That’s because the companies were eventually re-branded as Suntory and Nikka respectively, the two distilleries at the forefront of Japanese whisky production today.
Japanese whisky grew steadily in popularity throughout the 20th century in Japan. But, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that it was exported to the rest of the world, and only in the early 2000s – with awards from Whisky Magazine and the International Spirits Challenge – that the Japanese distillers were recognized as serious players on the global stage. And serious players they most certainly now are. Case in point, Japanese whisky distillers exported 24.7 million proof litres in 2016 compared to 1.5 million in 2011 – a whopping 1,300% increase.
What makes Japanese Whisky unique?
As mentioned previously, Japanese whisky took early inspiration from Scotch. But, there are two main factors that distinguish Japanese whisky from its Scottish counterpart.
Firstly, Japan has far fewer distilleries than Scotland – 12 compared to Scotland’s 100 or so. Crucially, the distilleries in Scotland, while rival companies – trade raw distillates amongst each-other to make blends. This, however is not the case in Japan. As a result, unlike in Scotland, single Japanese distilleries typically produce multiple distillations – resulting in multiple whisky styles from a single company.
Secondly, the Japanese produce whisky in casks that are unique to the region, resulting in unique flavor characteristics. Minzunara Casks, for example, are made from Mongolian Oak indigenous to Asia. Whiskies finished in these casks (as the Oak is very soft and susceptible to leaks, whiskies are generally finished in these barrels for no more than a few months) take on distinctly deep vanilla, honey, floral, blossom and even coconut flavors. Other whiskies are rested, aged or finished in Shochu casks, which are used to distill the traditional Japanese spirit of the same name (made from rice, barley, buckwheat, sugar cane and sweet potatoes) and imbue further unique flavors.
There are lots of Japanese whiskies out there on the market today, with many varieties being released by the two main distillers – Suntory and Nikka. One issue that would-be Japanese whisky samplers will face when looking for a good bottle is price. Japanese whisky doesn’t come cheap, with many bottles commanding upwards of the $300-$400 mark.
But, getting a good Japanese whisky doesn’t have to break the bank, and our list is focused on more budget friendly bottles that still have a lot to offer. The most you’ll pay for any of these is $70ish, and you’ll be getting a fine spirit for your money.
Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt 12 Years
Given Suntory’s Scotch heritage, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt takes heaps of inspiration from the Scottish dram. If you’re a fan of Speyside malts, this one will sit well with you. With apple and honey notes giving way to hints of barrel spice, it’s very drinkable, and recommended as a good entry point to Japanese whisky. It used to cost $40 retail–good for those on a budget, this bottle has gone up to nearly $100 due to high demands.
Nikka Coffey Grain
Nikka’s Coffey Grain is a fascinating spirit, taking cues from Irish, American and Scottish whisky making processes. Distilled using two coffey stills – imported by Nikka from Scotland in 1963, but still most commonly associated with Irish Whisky – flavor wise, this corn gain tipple is much more characteristic of a bourbon. Sweet on the nose, dominated by vanilla, and with maple syrup and brown sugar notes, it’s one for those who like their whiskies sweet and decadent.
Nikka from the Barrel
As many of readers would know, the Nikka from the Barrel has to be one of my favorite Japanese whisky. Nikka took a blend of malt whiskies from Yoichi distillery and grain whiskies from Miyagikyo distillery to combine them in oak casks for 3-6 months. Much like the name – the whisky comes from the blending barrel (as oppose to the maturing barrel). Nikka from the Barrel has a higher alcohol ABV of 51.4%, it is well worth adding in few drops of water to let it open up. This is a travel exclusive bottle found outside of the US, mostly in duty free stores.
While some purists might argue that Kikori isn’t a whisky at all, others have championed this young rice whisky as a new leader in the Japanese spirit market. Similarly produced to Japan’s sochu, but with a higher ABV that qualifies it as a whisky, Kikori has ruffled some feathers thanks to its controversial rice-grain mash-bill. Light, floral, and with caramel, oak and as subtle nuttiness on the palette, it’s very drinkable, and won a gold medal at San Francisco’s World Spirits Competition in 2016.
Mars Iwai Blended Whisky
A bourbon-inspired blend from Mars Shinsu, one of Japan’s small, rising distilleries, Mars Iwai Blended Whisky has been making waves because of its intriguing flavors and budget-friendly price point ($40). Made using ¼ malt whisky and ¾ grain whisky (albeit grain made in a pot still), the bourbon influence shines through with abundant vanilla and an almost cake-y sweetness. An appealing desert whisky if ever there was one.
So that’s it for this week’s edition. Let us know your Japanese whisky recommendations in the comments and join us next time when we sample more whiskies of the world!