Japanese Whisky

November 15, 2023

When you hear mention of Japanese spirits, what is the first thing that comes to mind?  If you are like most people, the first thought is of Sake or maybe Beer.  Japanese culture has a long history of creating alcoholic drinks from rice when the techniques appeared in Japan from China around 2000 years ago.

Mt Fuji

Mt Fuji

In the late 19th century, foreign visitors introduced whisky to the Japanese people.  These foreign visitors also brought whisky-making techniques, and while the taste was not familiar to the Japanese palate, an idea was formed.

Two gentlemen, Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, figure prominently in the early history of Japanese whisky founding companies Suntory and Nikka, respectively.

Japanese Whiskey Pioneers

Shinjiro Torii was interested in western wine and spirits, originally importing these products but with the goal to produce them locally.  In the early 1920s he founded Kotobukiya, the company which would eventually become Suntory.  He began work on the Yamazaki Whisky Distillery to produce whisky using the Scottish model but with locally produced ingredients.  Shinjiro hired Masataka Taketsuru to oversee the production with the first Japanese single malt whisky under the name Suntory Whisky Shirofuda (White Label) released around 1929.

 

Like Shinjiro Torii, Masataka Taketsuru shared a passion for western spirits, in particular whisky.  Masataka ventured to Scotland in 1918 and enrolled in the University of Glasgow.  He apprenticed at three Scottish distilleries learning their processes, recipes and the art of blending.  During his time in Scotland he recorded everything he learned in two notebooks which became the guides for future whisky production in Japan.  Returning to Japan in 1920 he joined Shinjiro Torii in the construction and launch of the Yamazaki Whisky Distillery.  Over the next few years Shinjiro and Masataka clashed over production with Masataka eventually leaving Suntory in 1934 to produce his own whisky under the company name Nikka.

 

During the 40s and 50s, both companies saw huge growth in demand for their whiskys.  It was also a time of further refinement and improvement of  their techniques and quality.  With the whisky boom of the 70s and 80s, both companies were well positioned to meet the demand of these drinkers.  But largely the market for Japanese malt whiskies remained local.  But that was about to change.

Japanese Whisky

The Japanese have always sought to create and produce the best, and their whisky production is no different.  They are free to experiment and only seek the finest ingredients and water in their whiskys.  While the whiskys are mostly made with the Japanese taste in mind, the production is Scottish in nature experimenting with smoke and barrel finishes.

This dedication paid off in 2003 when Yamazaki 12 year old whisky, distilled by Suntory, won a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge.  In 2004, Suntory’s Hibiki 30 year old won that same gold medal.

At the World Whisky Awards, Japanese whiskys have won first place awards every year since 2007.

 

Suntory Sherry Cask 2013

In 2013 Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible declared that Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was the best whisky in the world.  Jim Murray noted, the whisky has a “nearly indescribable genius.” and gave it a score of 97.5 out of 100.

With the announcement of these prestigious awards, demand for Japanese Whisky greatly expanded to the world market.  This demand quickly outstripped supply.  Today there are nine nationwide distilleries in operation in Japan, which is the Worlds third largest whisky producer behind Scotland and the United States.  The awards and recognition of this high quality have struck a chord with whisky drinkers everywhere.  Demand is high as Japanese whisky producers work hard to improve and increase their production.

 

Japanese Whiskys can be enjoyed in a number of ways, straight up either neat or on ice, or as part of a cocktail.  In Japan, drinking is a social event and because it is Japan, there are rules.

 

        • Rule 1 – Never drink alone.
        • Rule 2 – Wait for all your friends to have their drinks in front of them before touching yours.
        • Rule 3 – Someone has to say “kanpai!” before you’re allowed to take your first sip.
NIKKA YOICHI SINGLE MALT

NIKKA YOICHI SINGLE MALT

 

SUNTORY WHISKEY TOKI

SUNTORY WHISKY TOKI

Since we don’t live in Japan we are free to enjoy our whiskys any way we like.  While offerings are limited there are several great choices available here.  If you haven’t tried a whisky from Japan, well, what are you waiting for?  If you are interested in trying a whisky from Japan, some starting recommendations usually available in our market are the “smoky, fruity, and floral” NICCA YOICHI SINGLE MALT and SUNTORY WHISKY’S TOKI a blended Whiskey with a “sweet-and-spicy finish”.

And while you are experimenting with what Japanese whisky has to offer you might as well start looking for your new favourite cocktails. Try a Japanese Whisky Ginger Highball, a classic with a  spin or go with a Japanese Sour, a twist on the time-honoured Whiskey Sour.

 

 

It is a great time to be a Whisky drinker!  Kanpai!

Interested in more cocktail ideas, check out our cocktail page for full descriptions and recipes.

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