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Whisky 101

A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Whisky

Japanese Whisky

July 25, 2023

A Blend of Tradition and Innovation

In recent years, Japanese whisky has been quietly gaining popularity, and for good reasons! This captivating spirit, which arises from delicately fusing Scottish heritage and Japanese craftsmanship, has earned praise for its smooth and delicate flavours, propelling it into the ranks of the world’s best whiskies.

But what is their history? What are the distillation processes? And what are the most famous brands?

In this article, we will introduce you to the world of Japanese whisky and discover how Japanese whisky brands have been able to combine Scottish tradition with Japanese philosophy. Are you ready? Let’s start!

History of Japanese whisky

The origins of Japanese whisky find its roots in the Western world. Up until the 1850s, Japan had been a secluded society, isolated from the rest of the world for over two centuries. However, this all changed with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, an American naval officer who entered Tokyo Harbor with a formidable fleet of warships. Perry’s mission was clear – to compel Japan to open its borders to trade with the United States, and eventually, the Japanese government acquiesced.

With the opening of Japan’s borders, whisky began to make its way into the country. A few shochu and sake breweries started producing Japanese whisky on the side. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that Japanese whisky really took off.

In all truth, early attempts at whisky production in Japan were not very successful – and rather quite intoxicating! The Japanese were far behind the West in terms of technical knowledge. Hence. without the expertise, the production of dangerous distillates continued for decades.

Nevertheless, the Japanese were undeterred.

In their pursuit to catch up with the West, Japan dispatched ambassadors and scientists to various parts of Europe and North America, eager to learn about modern governance, science, education, and, of course, the art of whisky-making!

Masataka Taketsuru – the father of whisky making in Japan

During this period of intense cultural exchange, a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru – employed by the Settsu Liquor Company – went to Scotland to study the distillation process. 

He began his whisky apprenticeship in 1918 at the University of Glasgow, where he studied chemistry and engineering. After graduating from university, Masataka completed a series of apprenticeships at distilleries in Scotland. He worked at two Speyside distilleries, Longmorn and Glen Grant, where he gained experience in making single malt whisky.

Masataka Taketsuru (1894-1979)
Photo from www.nikka.com

Masataka returns to Japan

When Masataka returned to Japan in 1923, to his surprise, he discovered that his company wasn’t interested in initiating operations as a whisky distillery. In response, he took the bold step of simply quitting to pursue his dreams: founding a whisky distillery in Japan.

During the same time, Shinjiro Torii, another Japanese whisky pioneer, had heard of Masataka’s expertise. His company, Suntory – but back then it was known by the name of Kotobukiya –  was opening a distillery in Yamazaki and so he hired Masataka to lead the production process. The two of them were in partnership for a while but eventually, Masataka quit and founded his own distillery, also destined to become of the most popular Japanese Whisky companies: Nikka Whisky. 

Suntory Whisky: From Success to Failure and Back

As we mentioned, Suntory is a Japanese beverage company that was founded in 1899 by Shinjiro Torii. The company’s first product was Akadama Sweet Wine, which was a huge success. However, Torii wanted to create a whisky that suited the Japanese people’s preferences.

Shinjiro Torii (1879-1962)
Photo from www.house.suntory.com

In 1923, Torii founded the Yamazaki Distillery, the first Japanese distillery to produce whisky. He also created the first Japanese whisky: Suntory Shirofuda (“White Label”). Unfortunately, Shirofuda was not a success, as the spirit was too heavy and smoky for the Japanese palate.

Torii didn’t give up. He continued to experiment with different whisky recipes. In 1937, he released Suntory Kakubin, which immediately became popular in Japan. Indeed, Kakubin is a lighter and smoother whisky. Defineltyr more in line with Japanese tastes. Moreover, Kakubin is the best-selling whisky in the country even today!

Suntory Whisky Kakubin

More about Nikka Whisky

As we were saying, in 1934 Masataka went north and built his first distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido. But why the North? The weather conditions of Yoichi were in many ways similar to those of Scotland with a cool climate, crisp air and the right amount of humidity: the perfect location to let the whisky ageing!

In the beginning, the company founded by Masataka was called Dai Nippon Kajuu K.K. Which means the “Great Japan Fruit Juice Company.” Odd name for a whisky producer, isn’t it? Well, apparently, the company also produced apples to sustain the business at first.

In 1936 the first pot still designed by Masataka and made in Japan was installed and started distillation. Finally, in 1940, the first whisky from Nikka was presented on the market. The brand name of this whisky was “Nikka Whisky”, short for “Nippon Kaju”, which later became the name of the company itself.

A Unique Whisky Production

Now that we have seen how the production of whisky in Japan was born, let us discover together the elements that make it so unique.

Distillation processes

The distillation process for Japanese whisky is similar to the distillation process for Scotch whisky. The main difference is that Japanese whiskies typically use a higher percentage of malted barley than Scotch whiskies.

Most of the major distilleries in Japan, in fact, directly import most of their ingredients from Scotland, utilizing malted and sometimes even peated barley from the Isles. The individuality in taste that Japanese whisky possesses stems from the minute details in their distilling process: the unique water source, the shape of the distilling stills, and the type of wood used in the ageing barrels. Some distillers use imported bourbon barrels, but others make theirs out of mizunara, a tree only found in Japan that adds its own distinct flavour of incense, coconut, and a defined fruity character.

Climate and Maturation

Japan’s unique climate contributes significantly to the distinct character of its whiskies. The country experiences a wide range of temperatures, including hot and humid summers and cold winters. This climate accelerates the ageing process, leading to whiskies that mature faster than their Scottish counterparts. The rapid ageing process allows Japanese whiskies to develop complex flavours and aromas within a shorter time frame.

Diversity in Flavor Profiles

Each distillery in Japan offers a distinct range of tastes to cater to a wide array of preferences, thanks to the diversity in flavor profiles of Japanese whisky. From light and delicate to bold and smoky, Japanese whiskies exemplify a balance between traditional whisky characteristics and uniquely Japanese nuances.

Cultural Influences on Japanese Whisky

The culture of Japanese whisky intertwines with the nation’s customs and traditions, extending beyond the art of distillation.

Japanese whisky reflects the country’s cultural values and traditions, which infuse a sense of harmony, precision, and respect for nature into the spirits.

Omotenashi

This uniquely Japanese concept of hospitality permeates the whisky industry. Distilleries strive to create a harmonious experience for their visitors, making them feel welcome and valued.

Attention to Detail

 Japanese culture places great emphasis on precision and detail. This translates into every aspect of whisky production, from the selection of ingredients to the blending and bottling process.

Zen Philosophy

The pursuit of simplicity and mindfulness is akin to the Zen philosophy, which influences Japanese whisky craftsmanship. It emphasizes quality over quantity, and the result is an exquisite whisky that speaks to the soul.

Key JapaWhisky Brands and Their Distilleries

Now that we have explored whiskey production in Japan, let’s analyze together the most beloved brands and their distilleries. 

Suntory 

Suntory is Japan’s biggest whisky company. It owns three of the main distilleries on the island, including Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita. Suntory has been producing whisky since 1923, and its whiskies are known for their smooth, delicate flavour.

The Yamazaki distillery is located in the Yamazaki district of Kyoto. It is the oldest distillery in Japan, and it is known for its use of Mizunara oak casks. 

The Hakushu distillery in Hokkaido is renowned for utilizing pure, soft water from the Hakushu mountains. This water is acclaimed as one of the purest in the world, infusing the whisky with a smooth, delicate flavor.

The Chita distillery is located in the Chita Peninsula of Aichi Prefecture. It is known for its use of both mizunara oak and American oak casks. This gives Chita whiskies a complex flavour that is both smoky and fruity.

In general, Suntory whiskies are known for their typically lighter, more delicate flavours and texture. This is due to a number of factors, including the use of soft, pure water from the Japanese mountains, the use of mizunara oak casks, and the careful distillation process.

The lighter flavour profile of Suntory whiskies complements the refined tastes and traditions of the quintessential Japanese consumer. Japanese people often prefer lighter, more delicate flavours, and Suntory whiskies perfectly fit the bill.

Nikka 

Nikka Whisky is a Japanese whisky company that owns two distilleries, Yoichi and Miyagikyo. These distilleries produce whiskies that are steeped in the traditional Scottish methods of making whisky, but they also incorporate some unique Japanese elements.

The Yoichi distillery is located on the northern island of Hokkaido, and it is known for its use of peated malt.

The Miyagikyo distillery is located on the main island of Honshu, and it is known for its use of unpeated malt.

The whiskies produced by Nikka are a blend of the peated malt from Yoichi and the unpeated malt from Miyagikyo. This gives them a unique flavour that is both smoky and delicate.

Venture Whisky

The history of Venture Whisky Company can be traced back to 2004, when Ichiro Akuto, a descendant of a long line of sake brewers, founded Chichibu Distillery in his hometown of Chichibu, Japan. Akuto was inspired to start the distillery after the closure of the Hanyu distillery in 2000.

Hanyu was one of the most respected distilleries in Japan, and its closure was a major loss to the whisky industry. Akuto was able to acquire the remaining stock of Hanyu whisky, and he began to sell it under his brand name, Ichiro’s Malt.

Chichibu Distillery

Chichibu Distillery is famous for its use of traditional methods to produce its whiskies. The distillery uses only the finest ingredients, including malted barley from local farms and pure spring water from the mountains of Chichibu. The whiskies produced at Chichibu Distillery are known for their unique flavour, which is often described as being fruity, floral, and smoky

In addition to its own whiskies, Chichibu Distillery also produces a range of whiskies that are made from the remaining stock of Hanyu whisky. These whiskies are some of the rarest and most sought-after whiskies in the world.

Small Local Whisky Producers: Ji-Whisky

Ji-Whisky distilleries are often located in rural areas and use traditional methods to produce their whiskies. They are not distributed nationwide and are often not well known outside their local areas. The producers often specialize in brewing sake or shochu and only brew whisky on the side.

Ji-Whiskies are often more experimental than the whiskies produced by larger brands. They may use different types of barley, different types of casks, or different distillation techniques.

An example of this is the Sunshine whisky from the Wakatsuru brewery, which is sold in sake bottles. This experimentation has led to the creation of some truly unique and delicious whiskies. 

As mentioned previously, brands such as Suntory and Nikka dominate the Japanese whisky market. However, there are a number of smaller distilleries that are making craft whiskies, locally known as Ji-Whisky.

If you ever go to Japan, ask the local bars about Ji-Whisky. They are definitely worth a try!

Conclusion

Japanese whisky has transcended borders, cultures, and traditions, captivating the hearts of whisky enthusiasts worldwide. With its devotion to craftsmanship, adherence to tradition, and commitment to innovation, Japanese whisky continues to push the boundaries of excellence in the world of spirits. As the whisky boom shows no signs of slowing down, it is safe to say that Japanese whisky’s legacy will be etched in the annals of whisky history!

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