The Rise and Rise of Japanese Whisky

Spirits Whiskey/Whisky

Japanese whisky was once considered a bit of a novelty, with the Scottish Whiskies taking centre stage, and Irish and American whiskies (Bourbon is a whisky) being the main backing dancers. That all changed a few years ago when the God of World Whisky, Jim Murray, named the Yamazaki Sherry Cask Single Malt 2013 as the best whisky in the world in his 2015 Whisky Bible.

Such is the respect for Jim’s palate that it made the world-wide community sit up and take note, particularly those in Scotland where they realised they weren’t being as creative and innovative as other foreign producers.

But finally, Japanese whisky had gotten the credit it deserved.

Although following along the traditional Scot’s method of fermenting and distilling malted barley and aging it in oak casks, the Japanese have developed their own approach to making whisky, one that has a strong emphasis on continuous improvement. The first ever Japanese whisky was distilled in 1924 at Yamazaki distillery outside of Kyoto, by distiller Masataka Taketsuru. His story starts with his employer, a Japanese liquor company, sending him to Scotland in 1918 to learn the art of whisky. He enrolled at the University of Glasgow, where he studied organic chemistry. In 1919 he began his series of apprenticeships, originally at Longmorn distillery, then Bo’ness distillery. His last apprenticeship was with Hazelburn distillery, before he returned to Japan in 1920, with a new skill and a new Scottish bride.

On return to Japan, Masataka learned that the company no longer wanted to head down the path of whisky making, deciding to stay with their traditional sake production. He was recruited by Shinjiro Torii, an entrepreneurial visionary, who had expanded a small imported wine shop into a company named Kotobukiya (now Suntory). Shinjiro’s success with selling a fortified wine designed for the Japanese palate had encouraged him to create a whisky that would appeal to that same market, an ambitious move in a market that was dominated by sake.

The Yamazaki distillery is still used in production today, creating whiskies that are rich and fruity, with traces of tropicals and subtle smoke. Suntory eventually opened a second distillery, Hakushu in the forest surrounding Mt. Kaikomagatake, producing whiskies that have hints of green apple, jasmine and vanilla with a long dry finish. These two whiskies are then blended to make Suntory’s Hibiki line of blended whisky. Suntory’s line of whiskies are fantastic, but it must be said that they cost a bomb.

After ten years with Suntory, Masataka left to build the distillery of his dreams in the location that he thought had roughly the same climate as Scotland, Hokkaido an island in the country’s far north. His Yoichi distillery was the beginning of Nikka, the other big player in Japan’s whisky manufacturing. Nikka later opened a second distillery in Miyagikyo, creating whiskies of various ages and varying flavours. Nikka have named all their whiskies after where they are created, which can cause some problems to the entry level drinker.

But both Nikka and Suntory have had a few challengers rise up over the last five years, Chichibu distillery in Saitama, near Tokyo and White Oak distillery in Akashi, near Kobe, are two that have pushed the boundaries of Japanese whisky production, not only using the traditional Japanese Mizunara oak rather than French or American oak, but also using old bourbon barrels.

With more and more Japanese whiskies hitting our market you need to be willing to try the ranges, and then buy as much as you can because the limited production and demand for these quality drops mean prices will keep going up and up.

A couple to try, without needing to sell a kidney:

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky – Coffey here is referencing the type of stills that Nikka have used, a style that is designed to retain the flavour of the ingredients and carry a distinctive texture to the finished product, with this showing as a cross between Irish whiskey and Guatemalan/Venezuelan rum but carrying some serious yum factor. Some sweet fruit, a little poached pear. Pepper and vanilla wafer in the lingering sweet finish. 45%alc, around $120.

Chivas Regal Mizunara Special Edition 12yo – whilst technically not a Japanese whisky, the team at Chivas have finished part of the blend in Mizunara oak, the first time the Japanese oak has ever been used to create a Scotch whisky. There’s some white stone fruit on the nose, subtle nuts, it’s floral and sweet on the tongue, light baking spices and a layer of malty sweetness in there. The finish lets the fruit show through with a little aniseed hiding in there. 40% alc, from $69 online.

White Oak Tokinoka Blended Whisky – White Oak’s stills are only used one month every year so the production is small, but it’s probably Japan’s oldest distillery with its licence granted in 1919. Very fruity apricots, green apples and honey drizzled Weet-bix on the nose, on the tongue it has a slight oily texture with dried fruits and apricots, the finish is short and smooth with the honey showing through again and a touch of pink peppercorn. Perfect as a beginner’s whisky or an ideal gift to discover Japanese whisky without breaking the bank. 40%alc, from $60 online.

Ichiros Chichibu Blended Whisky – blended and bottled by Ichiro Akuto at his Chichibu distillery created from both malt and grain whisky. The nose shows peach, apricot, and a touch of butterscotch and vanilla cream wafer biscuits. On the tongue it’s driven by the flavours of toffee, with gingerbread, pepper, tobacco leaf and tropicals playing a minor role. On the finish the vanilla rises and shines through with some dried tropical fruits. 46%alc, $125

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