We love whisk(e)y. The brown spirit has blown up on the world stage over the last ten years. We’re lucky enough to live during the resurgence of America’s bourbon, Ireland’s triple distilled whiskeys, and Scotland’s single malts. Yet we have yet to really embraces two lesser known whiskies — Canadian and Japanese.
It’s the latter we’re going to take a dive into today:
Japanese Whisky has deep roots in tea ceremonies, sake, and Scotland — but it all started with Shinjiro Torii and his drive to bring western style alcohol to Japan’s shores.
Torii founded an import company called Kotobukiya and was soon making good money importing international booze to Japan. But he quickly realized that the real profit and love of alcohol was in making it locally. He started with Akadama Port Wine, which was a smashing success — thanks in part to an ad campaign that featured Japan’s biggest opera singer posing semi-nude in a poster. This venture into producing local port convinced Torii that the Japanese had a palate and desire for their own versions of foreign alcohols so he turned his focus and capital towards making whisky. Enter Masataka Taketsuru.
Taketsuru’s family had been brewing up Sake near Hiroshima since 1733. As a young man, Masataka Taketsuru left Japan in late 1918 and moved to Scotland to study chemistry at the University of Glasgow and whisky at various distilleries around Scotland. The budding chemist and whisky distiller collected whisky making experiences during his years in Scotland like modern day travelers collect Instagram brags. The man was a sponge for science and information as he worked at the Longmorn distillery, the James Calder & Co.’s Bo’ness distillery, and the Hazelburn distillery. That gave Taketsuru an education in Speyside, Lowland, and Campbeltown whiskies, respectively.
Taketsuru returned to Japan in late 1920 with his Scottish wife (a union almost unheard of at that time) and promptly started working at Kotobukiya for Shinjiro Torii. Torii and Taketsuru opened Japan’s first malt whisky distillery in 1923, at the base of Mt. Tennozan near Kyoto. They’d call it the Yamazaki Distillery. Taketsuru was very exacting in the choice of the location: The distillery was surrounded by an ancient bamboo forest that would later help add a distinctly Japanese dimension to the product by using the bamboo to filter the whisky. Moreover the site was chosen specifically for its supremely high-quality water.
The Rikyu no Mizu spring’s soft mineral water still percolates near the distillery and has been designated by the Japanese government as one of the best water sources in the country. The legendary tea ceremony master Senno Rikyu is also said to have only accepted water from this spring as good enough for brewing his tea. The water’s softness and mineral content infuse the whisky made there with a distinct terroir of the region.
Torii and Taketsuru’s whisky was a hit with Japanese drinkers. Torii eventually changed the name of his company to Suntory and thus one of the most iconic brands of Japanese whisky was born. By 1934 Taketsuru felt he’d worked for someone else long enough and he struck out on his own. He moved to Yoichi on the northern island of Hokkaido because he felt it the climate and terrain better mimicked that of Scotland — it’s surrounded on three sides by mountains, the fourth side is coastal, and there was, once again, soft mineral water near the site.
By 1940 Taketsuru renamed his distilling company, changing it from Dai Nippon Kaju K.K. to the easier to remember and pronounce Nikka. And, thus, the second most recognizable Japanese whisky was born.
The whisky style heralded into existence by Torii and Taketsuru is distinctly Scottish in style and flavor. Often peat is used to malt barley before it’s made into a mash. Though, this isn’t always the case — some Japanese whiskies aren’t necessarily peaty.
Japanese whisky has the advantage of being experimental to what works best in Japan. Barley is often imported from Scotland (ironically most the barley used in Scotch is imported from Germany and Denmark). The barley is then malted (either with peat or not), then turned into a mash. The mash is put in the mash tun where it’s mixed with hot water and turned into a wort. The wort is transferred to a wash back where yeasts are added to help alcohol form. Often Japanese distillers will use bamboo or wooden wash backs to help infuse more of the local taste into the product, whereas steel wash backs are used elsewhere in the industry. Then it’s all moved to Coffey or Pot stills for distillation. Next, the distillate is transferred to a sherry cask made from northern Spanish oak for maturation (sometimes bourbon or other casks are used these days). Then, as with the majority of whiskies around the world, the alcohol is blended and bottled.
It’s in that last step where Japanese whisky stands out. Most whiskies around the world are blended horizontally — that is, whisk(e)y bottlers will buy all the whisk(e)y they can find from any distillery and blend that into a final product to put their names on. This is the case with almost all American whiskey styles. Irish whiskeys like Jameson tend to be big enough not to have to do this. And Japanese whisky shadows Irish whiskey in this sense. They use what’s called vertical blending — that is, they only (generally) blend whisky from their own stills at various stages of maturation. This gives the whisky a very distinct flavor that isn’t diluted by other distilleries’ products.
You’ll also find a wide array of Single Malt and Single Still whiskies from all Japanese distilleries as you would from other whisk(e)y regions.
And that’s it, folks. That’s Japanese whisky.
Japanese blended whisky has in some cases become synonymous with the scotch and soda highball. Ordering a Suntory Highball is shorthand for whisky and soda (often served in a glass beer mug) and even sold in premixed cans all over Japan. It’s common to order a whisky and soda to drink while eating food in Japan as a pairing like a beer or wine. It’s also common to mix Japanese whisky with hot water making a very basic sort of hot toddy that sounds perfect for getting through a cold winter’s day.
Of course, it’s not all whisky soda highballs. Over the course of the last several years, Japanese whisky has been dominating the international whisky scene by winning accolade after accolade, ranking it higher than most scotches in quality and flavor.
Below are some bottles to keep an eye out for on your next trip to the liquor store.
YAMAZAKI 18 YEAR OLD
This is the literal gold standard of Japanese whisky. Yamazaki from Suntory will break your bank at around $500 a bottle. That price does come with the fact that it’s won the gold at the International Spirits Challenge in 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Expect a spiciness that’s underlined with toffee, sweet raisins, and a hint of coffee.
Hibiki was named the World’s Best Blended Whisky at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards. Again, that should speak for itself. The blend is considered “unbelievably balanced, and dangerously drinkable” by famed whisky aficionado and Whisky Bible author Jim Murray. Expect a complex blend of smoke, caramelized nuts, slight lemon, blackcurrants, pears, vanilla, dark toffee, and plenty of sherry spice.
YOICHI 18 YEAR OLD
This peaty whisky distilled in the north of Japan on Hokkaido is reminiscent of Scotland’s Islay whiskies. No huge awards here, just great whisky. Expect a lot of smoke with bacon hints over toffee and a little coffee.
This whisky has a cool backstory. It’s distilled using Coffey stills imported from Scotland. They use a primarily maize mash, not far off from bourbon or some Jameson distillates. So that means you should expect a fair amount of vanilla with a sweetness that leans more into almost a maple syrup territory.
HAKUSHU 18 YEAR OLD
Hakushu by Suntory hits notes that make this a purely unique whisky drinking experience. The distinct smokey flavor is accented by strong fruits like pear and mango along with an undercurrent of mint.
This pure malt is a blend of whiskies from Nikka’s Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries. The malts are the same from each distillery, they’re simply made from different water spring sources, matured, and blended into a pure malt, not a single malt — since that has to be from one still and maturation. Pure Malt is a spicy and distinctly sweet whisky that hints at caramel, coffee, and even a little bit of tobacco with some spiciness from the sherry casking.
MIYAGIKYO 15 YEAR OLD
This one was named the best whisky in the world according to 2015’s Whisky Bible. It’ll cost you an arm and leg to buy. But, come on, who doesn’t want to at least try one of the best whiskies ever made? Though be warned they only release 5,000 bottles a year. Expect raisin, sun-dried tomato, clove, cacao, and hazelnuts. There’s also a distinct, though ever so slight, hint of sour under the sweetness.