All alcohol goes in and out of fashion but no other spirit category has had the meteoric rise of Japanese Whisky.
Five years ago, you wouldn’t have been alone in not knowing that Japan even made Whisky, much less that it is of the quality that we know today. Yet in that time, Japanese Whisky has gone from a little-known niche category to one of the most highly sought-after spirit types.
But as with all overnight success stories, years of hard work went into perfecting the balance and sophistication that is now gaining such international acclaim. In fact, it has been nearly a century since the first commercial Whisky distillery opened in Japan.
The abridged history of Japanese Whisky
Masataka Taketsuru Is known as the father of Japanese Whisky. He spent five years in Scotland as an apprentice to a variety of distilleries, learning the art of Whisky-making. On his return to Japan, he was employed by Shinjiro Torii and together they started the Yamazaki distillery in 1923.
After 10 years though, Taketsuru left Yamazki after continued disagreements with Torii. These essentially boiled down to issues of art vs commerce. Taketsuru went off to open his own distillery, Yoichi, in Northern Japan. He chose that location the climate was more similar to Scotland.
Over the 20th century, these two distilleries would go on to become Suntory (Yamazkai) and Nikka (Yoichi), the cornerstones of the Japanese whisky industry – as well as bitter business rivals. But until the end of the 20th-century Japanese whisky was still almost an entirely domestic product. That changed in the early 21st century when Nikka and Suntory began picking up awards at international Whisky competitions.
So what is Japanese Whisky?
In contrast to the strict classifications surrounding Scotch or Bourbon, Japanese whisky has only one: it must be made in Japan. While the production is still essentially the same as Scotch (distilled malted barley that is barrel-aged for a minimum of three years) the differences in the methods make Japanese Whisky distinct.
Japanese whisky puts a particular emphasis on blending, choosing to do so in-house. In contrast to Scotch producers, Japan’s distilleries work by a vertically integrated method, meaning the companies own both the distilleries and the brands of blended whiskies. Japanese producers do not trade with their competitors but instead, each house puts out a wide range of styles, using multiple types of stills, diverse fermentation methods, and a wide range of ageing casks.
Constantly tweaking and improving their process, Japanese Distillers have a reputation of experimentation and innovation, as they are constantly refining each step of their distillation, fermentation and maturation methods.
Don’t panic about the shortages
Yes, Japanese whisky is in the midst of a huge supply glitch. And yes, age labels have been removed from most ranges. But new products being released to replace those that are no longer with us, and the category as a whole is enjoying increasing diversity.
More whisky is on the way, but the category’s growth domestically and internationally after an extended period of stagnation depleted whisky warehouses. So chill, it will get better. There’s still plenty of Japanese Whisky out there and there’s more being patiently aged and awaiting its turn for the years ahead.
Don’t dismiss blended Japanese Whisky.
When it comes it cocktails, we are strong believers that blended Whisky is the way to go anyway. Yes, Japanese Whisky has made its name with age labelled product but don’t forget the Japanese master blenders have spent decades perfecting the art of whisky blending. They have, and continue, to experiment with an infinite combination of whiskies, aged in at least a dozen types of casks and distilled with different grains. They know what they are doing.
Seek out smaller Japanese Whisky distilleries
Sure, Suntory and Nikka are the big guns when it comes to Whisky distilleries in Japan but there are also a few small players that are making a name for themselves as well.
Distilleries like Mars Shinshu (who are the third most prominent whisky maker in Japan) and
Chichibu is doing some really interesting things. Chichibu has just released their IPA Finish, where single malt has been aged in casks previously holding India pale ale.
There are also a number of new distilleries in the planning. The Sakurao distillery is set to open later this year and hopes to create Hiroshima’s first single malt whisky and craft gin. The Kanosuke distillery in Kagoshima is being established by Komasa Jyozo Co, a Shochu maker founded in 1883. The Chokaisan distillery will also open at the end of the year with the annual capacity estimated a 90,000 litres.
Including the new sites, Japan will now be home to over 20 active distilleries, so there is plenty to explore.
We have seven cocktails that will not only bring out the best in your Japanese Whisky but leaving you asking why you haven’t been mixing up more of the stuff.