A Complete Guide To Japanese Whiskey

A Complete Guide To Japanese Whiskey
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    Although still ranking behind beer, Nihonshu (popularly known as “sake”), and Shochu in terms of consumption, the market share of Japanese whiskey has been steadily increasing over time. Japanese whiskey has regularly won international awards. In 2015, the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was named the best whiskey in the world by Jim Murray’s “Whiskey Bible,” an influential annual publication that reviews thousands of whiskeys from around the world. Indeed, global demand for Japanese whiskey has soared.

    In this post, we shall look at the history and characteristics of Japanese whiskey, discuss some of the best Japanese brands including both major distilleries and boutique brands, compare their distinguishing features, and round off by looking at some options for purchasing Japanese whiskey.

    The History Of Japanese Whiskey

    The History Of Japanese Whiskey


    Imported whiskey was introduced to Japan during the Meiji Restoration, but due to its hefty price tag, it was mainly enjoyed only by expatriates and Japanese elites with an interest in Western culture. This all changed in the early twentieth century, however, when Masataka Taketsuru from the company Kotobukiya (later to be renamed “Suntory” in 1963) traveled to Scotland to learn the art of whiskey-making, where he apprenticed at some local distilleries.

    Following that, in 1923, Shinjiro Torii, one of the founders of the company, established the Yamazaki distillery near Kyoto, the first of its kind in Japan, and hired Taketsuru as an executive of the distillery.

    After the Second World War, Suntory and Nikka emerged as the two main players as Japanese whiskey began to grow in popularity. With the popularity of drinks like the “highball,” in which whiskey is mixed with soda, whiskey began to become more integrated into Japanese culture. Moving into the twentieth century, it picked up more and more awards overseas, leading to a global boom in Japanese exports and this has caused a lack of some aged varieties in Japan and resulted in price spikes.

    General Features Of Japanese Whiskey

    The History Of Japanese Whiskey


    As already discussed, Masataka Taketsuru studied whiskey-making in Scotland, so it is only natural that the initial offerings of Japanese whiskey mirrored the methods of scotch in terms of the use of pot stills, traditional mashing, fermentation, and the distillation process. However, since that time, Japanese whiskey, while still closely resembling scotch, has developed its own distinctive characteristics.

    The distinguishing features of Japanese whiskey include the fact that, although like scotch it is primarily made from malted barley, it also blends other grains and Japanese distilleries are very inventive, trying different blending techniques and cask types to give them original flavors. Whereas scotch is always aged in oak casks, Japanese whiskey may use American oak, sherry casks, as well as Mizunara oak, and this imparts distinctive elements into the whiskey. Further, as is generally the case with Japanese craftsmanship, the whiskey makers are very precise in their craft and this tends to make for a smoother product. Last but not least, the varied nature of the Japanese climate, which combines steaming hot summers and bitterly cold winters, speeds the aging process leading to distinct maturation differences compared to scotch whiskey.

    Major Japanese Whiskey Distilleries

    Major Japanese Whiskey Distilleries


    When it comes to large-scale producers of Japanese whiskey, three names stand out from the rest of the pack: Suntory, Nikka, and Kirin. The first two have already been discussed above and Kirin, although more famous for its beer offerings, also famously produces whiskey at its Fuji Gotemba distillery located at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Next, we shall discuss the respective famous brands of these major players.

    The three major Suntory brands that any budding Japanese whiskey connoisseur needs to be familiar with are Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Hibiki. Hakushu primarily uses American oak casks and this contributes to its fresh, herbal, and lightly peated profile. With Yamazaki and Hibiki, the aim is for more complex, layered flavors which are achieved by aging different batches of whiskey in various cask types such as American white oak, sherry casks, and Mizunara oak, and then blending them together. Yamazaki is a single malt whiskey with complex fruity notes while Hibiki, a blended whiskey, has a smoother, more floral taste.

    Major Nikka brands include Yoichi, Miyagikyo, Nikka From the Barrel, and Coffey. Yoichi, with its smoky, peaty profile, is perhaps the closest to traditional scotch whiskey. With Miyagikyo, the intention is to create a more elegant, refined taste that is both lightly fruity and delicate. Nikka From The Barrel blends single malts and grain whiskeys for a rich, full-bodied, and complex taste, whereas the Coffey brand, named after the Coffey stills it uses, includes both the sweet and smooth Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt.

    In terms of Kirin whiskey, as mentioned, Fuji is the main label and both single grain and single malt whiskeys are produced at its Fuji distillery. The single grain whiskeys are made primarily from corn and are typically smooth and sweet with vanilla, caramel, or fruity notes. The single malt whiskeys, distilled in a pot still, are made from malted barley and are richer with a slightly smoky feel.

    Boutique Japanese Whiskey Brands

    Boutique Japanese Whiskey Brands


    Slightly smaller, so-called boutique producers, such as Chichibu, Karuizawa, Eigashima, and Mars Whiskey, while lacking the financial muscle of the large-scale producers have definitely added something to the Japanese whiskey landscape.

    Chichibu Whiskey, from the Chichibu distillery, is created in smaller batches, and renowned for the meticulous care of the craftsmen in each batch, utilizing a variety of cask types to create whiskeys famous for their complexity, balance, and distinct character. Chichibu The First has a rich flavor with malty, fruity, and spicy notes, whereas Chichibu The Peated has a sweeter fruitiness and a smoky, peaty feel.

    Although the Karuizawa Distillery was closed in 2000, it remains one of the rarest and most sought-after Japanese whiskeys. There is the classic Karuizawa 1960 brand as well as brands celebrating Japanese culture with the Geisha and Noh series. The Karuizawa 1960 brand has a highly complex sherry-like taste and a rich, velvety finish. The Geisha series has rich, dark notes and floral elements, whereas the Noh series is smokier while still drawing on the flavors of its sherry casks.

    The Eigashima or White Oak Distillery, located in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, is famous for its brand series of the same name and includes the Akashi Blended, Akashi Single Malt, and Akashi White Oak brands. The Blended brand is lighter and suited to casual drinking, the White Oak is more complex, blending malt and fruity notes, whereas the Single Malt is aged in a combination of bourbon, sherry, and virgin oak casks, giving it an elegant, refined character.

    Mars whiskey is made in copper stills at the Mars Shinshu distillery in Nagano Prefecture and utilizes the pure water and unique climate of its high-altitude location. Its major brands include Cosmo, described in the next paragraph, Komagatake, which is mixed in bourbon and sherry casks for a fruity, spicy flavor, and Iwai, which, drawing inspiration from Bourbon in America, has a smoky taste mixed with softer, sweeter notes of caramel and vanilla.

    How To Purchase Japanese Whiskey

    There are a wide number of options for purchasing whiskey in Japan, from your local Saka-ya (bottle shop) to supermarkets, convenience stores, and even some pharmacies and home appliance stores. You may be able to find authentic Japanese whiskey at online retailers.

    The Enduring Legacy And Global Impact of Japanese Whiskey

    The Enduring Legacy And Global Impact of Japanese Whiskey


    In summary, with its rich history and unique characteristics, Japanese whiskey has carved a distinctive niche in the global whiskey market. The unique flavor profiles that distinguish Japanese whiskey from other varieties have developed as a result of a commitment to craftsmanship, innovative blending techniques, and use of various cask types, such as American oak, sherry casks, and Mizunara oak. Major distilleries like Suntory, Nikka, and Kirin have established themselves with iconic brands such as Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hibiki, Yoichi, Miyagikyo, and Fuji, each offering a diverse range of flavors from fruity and floral to smoky and peaty.

    The Japanese whiskey landscape has been further augmented by boutique distilleries such as, Chichibu, Eigashima, and Mars Whiskey further enrich the landscape with their meticulous craftsmanship and limited-edition offerings, providing whiskey afficionados with a broader range of tasting experiences.

    Are you a fan of Japanese whiskey? Do you think it compares favorably to other types of whiskey, such as Irish, Scotch, or American whiskey? Let us know in the comments.

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