The word "whisky" typically evokes images of a golden amber liquid, tuxedoed bartenders, and Scottish highlands. However, a new image has emerged on the world stage in recent years: Japanese whisky. Once a humble brew, it now graces the finest bars and tables worldwide, captivating palates with its nuanced flavors.
A Brief History of Japanese Whisky
Unlike its Scottish counterpart, Japanese whisky has only been around for about 100 years. The year 1923 was a pivotal moment; Taketsuru Masataka, driven by ambition and a fervent passion for whisky, set the wheels in motion working at Suntory, which was but a small shop selling imported wines at the time. There, inspired by his years learning about whisky in Scotland and with the support of Suntory president Torii Shinjiro, Taketsuru aimed to replicate the whisky-making process. He imported barley from Scotland and used oak casks, both quintessential ingredients to traditional whisky.
Together with Torii, Taketsuru laid the foundation for what would become Yamazaki, Japan's first whisky distillery. He later founded his own company, Nikka, and established the Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido. Suntory (the label under which Yamazaki falls) and Nikka remain the most prominent players in the Japanese whisky scene, each with distinct styles and legacy.
While Japanese whisky stayed true to its Scottish roots, it also developed a few differences over time. Unlike Scottish whisky, where blending often occurs independent of the distillers, Japanese distilleries craft their signature blends, resulting in astonishing and more curated variety. This gave rise to distinct regional variations, from the mineral-rich waters of Hakushu to the use of a rare and precious wood native to Japan, Mizunara oak.
In 2001, Japanese whisky was pushed onto the global stage with Nikka's 10-year Yoichi Single Malt, awarded the prestigious Best of the Best title by Whiskey Magazine.
However, with success came a bittersweet twist. The surge in international demand coincided with a decline in local production. The primary element of good whisky is how long it matures in oak casks. This is called the "age statement," and this number is seen predominantly on any reputable bottle. The Japanese market could not withstand this waiting period, and many distilleries halted production. The rare nature of certain blends then inspired a very affluent group of collectors who vie for the honor of owning, not drinking, these treasured bottles.
A well-known example is Karuizawa Whisky, a distillery in Nagano that permanently closed its doors in 2001. The remaining casks were bought up by the company's executives, who have since been independently bottling and selling the blend. One bottle from this 'ghost distillery' went for a record-breaking $128,000 at an auction in 2017. Yamazaki's 55-year-old single malt sold for a whopping $795,000 in 2020.
Must-Know Japanese Whisky Brands
Suntory and Nikka are the most popular brands and Japan's largest whisky producers. Suntory operates two distilleries: Yamazaki and Hakushu. Yamazaki, located in Mishima, Osaka Prefecture, is one of the oldest distillers. Hakushu, located in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, is known for its blends inspired by the nearby Japanese Alps.
Nikka owns the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. Taketsuru opened Yoichi to mimic the process and design of Scottish whisky distilleries. Miyagikyo, in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, produces grain and malt whiskies in traditional and column stills. All four distilleries allow public access with and without reservation if you want to see how their whiskies are made.
Which Japanese Whisky Should You Drink?
As you embark on your journey into this world of liquid gold, consider trying some of the most popular Japanese whiskies. Start with Suntory’s Yamazaki 12-Year-Old, a single malt brimming with floral and fruit notes, perfect for your first step. For something more refreshing, Suntory Toki, with its citrus, smoke, and apple notes, is the whisky of choice for the uninitiated. Akashi White Oak, a whisky boasting vanilla, spice, and marshmallow notes, showcases the art of Japanese blending.
For the adventurous or the whisky connoisseur, Nikka Yoichi Single Malt offers a glimpse into Japanese whisky's smoky, peated side with its bold but balanced almond, smoke, and vanilla flavor profile. There's also Mars Iwai Tradition, whose distillery sits at the highest altitude in Japan and is matured in wine casks. If you are brand loyal and a fan of Kirin beer, try their Fuji Sanroku Signature Blend. With its 50% alcohol by volume rating, this one is meant to be sipped, not slugged.
Where To Drink Japanese Whisky in Japan
Instead of drinking alone, try some curated group experiences. For a crash course on nightlife tradition in Japan, sign up for this Kyoto whisky and sake tasting tour. You'll leave with a solid foundation to help you order better the next time you hit a Japanese bar.
Looking for something more intimate and personalized? Head to Fukushima Prefecture's Asaka Distillery, where you can make your own Japanese whisky blend and try Yamazakura, a blended malt awarded the 2022 title of "Best Blended Whisky in the World."
If you want to sample different whisky brands in Tokyo, this Ebisu bar-hopping tour takes you to members-only establishments with exclusive selections.
Japanese whisky occupies a multipurpose space within its own culture. Highly sought-after bottles of Japanese whisky brands are often given as corporate gifts. In contrast, diluted cocktails of younger whiskies are part of the standard fare at local snack bars or izakayas.
Since 2008, the popularity of highball cocktails made with whisky, some kind of carbonated drink, a lemon slice, and ice has encouraged the development of a more refined palate of Japanese whiskies. Suntory soon began producing canned highballs readily available at convenience stores and vending machines for a few yen each. In other words, whisky in Japan occupies a rare position as both a status symbol and a staple.
How to Drink Japanese Whisky
There are many ways to enjoy whisky in Japan. The humble highball is the forerunner of all Japanese whisky cocktails, enjoyed with carbonated drinks like ginger ale, Coca-Cola, or the standard club soda. For a more minimalist experience, mizuwari, a simple mix of whisky and water, allows the whisky notes to dominate the flavor — either of these works perfectly for the humid summer months. In the biting winter, the comforting warmth of oyuwari, whisky with hot water.
The world of Japanese whisky is dynamic, constantly evolving, and offering discoveries around every corner. Although there have been changes to the landscape, its foundation is built on firm principles of innovation and ingenuity. So raise your glass and toast the future of Japanese whisky.
New to Japanese Drinks?
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