When I heard that the 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s World Whisky Bible had ranked a Japanese whisky (Suntory’s Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013, sadly not available in the US) I wasn’t surprised; I’ve been familiar with Japan’s world-class whiskies since before I started working in the business. What struck me however, was the degree to which the mainstream (i.e. non-beverage-oriented) media picked up the story and made Japanese whisky part of the popular consciousness. I can’t tell you how many inquiries I’ve received, even from people who were at most casual whisky drinkers, wanting to know “what’s the deal with this ‘Japanese whisky’?”
So… What’s the deal?
Japan’s whisky-making heritage dates back to 1923 with the founding of the country’s iconic Yamazaki distillery by Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru was the son of a sake-brewing family, ostensibly studying in Scotland to bring Europe’s latest and greatest advances in organic chemistry back to his family’s brewery. Internships at Longmorn and Hazelburn distilleries inspired him to return home, not to carry on his family’s sake business, but create Japan’s first commercial whisky distillery, Yamazaki, for the company that today is known as Suntory. (pictured: barrels of maturing whisky at Yamazaki)
Despite being the progenitor of Japan’s whisky industry at Yamazaki, Taketsuru was not his own boss, and eventually fell out with the company’s owners over stylistic issues. He favored a rich, oily, lightly peated spirit, which they thought would overwhelm the Japanese palate and not sell very well. He left to found his own company, now known as Nikka, and build the distillery of his dreams, Yoichi, in 1934. The differences in both companies’ house styles carry forward to this day, with Nikka being known for round, warming, slightly smoky spirits, and Suntory’s slightly leaner, more angular products emphasizing treble notes of orchard fruit, mineral, and wet bamboo.
Most whisky in Japan is drunk with ice and either water or soda water. Drinking whisky diluted with water, known as mizuwari, evolved from a traditional way of drinking shōchū, Japan’s indigenous spirit, and is a magnificent with food. Whisky and soda, or highball, is experiencing a revival, especially among younger drinkers, and of course Japan’s bartenders can do magnificent things with ice, including hand-carved spheres that cool without excessive dilution. My personal taste, and I think that of most Americans, favors enjoying these whiskies neat.
It’s not Scotch
If for no other reason than that it is not made in Scotland. UK law and various international agreements are explicitly clear on this point. Even the United States, which routinely thumbs its nose at place-based product designations, agrees that Scotch must be made in Scotland.
That being said, because Japan’s distilling culture has Scottish roots and operates within the same general model as Scotch, it’s useful to have some context to understand how they differ. Scotch whisky is manufactured under a detailed set of regulations designed to safeguard its quality and authenticity. Japan’s distillers adopt most of these definitions for their own product, though as a general practice or custom rather than law. Theoretically, a Japanese distiller could produce bourbon-style whiskey or a pure pot-still whisky on the Irish model if they wanted. (pictured: a few of Hakushu’s 24 pot stills)
Malt whisky, the oldest type, is made entirely from a mash of malted barley, distilled in a pot still twice, sometimes three times. Malt whisky originating at a single distillery (i.e. not a blend of more than one distillery’s products) is entitled to be called Single Malt whisky. The relatively inefficient distillation process results in a product that retains a lot of the impurities that give the raw spirit its character. Additional layers of complexity can be derived from the use of some amount of peat smoke to dry the barley after it is malted.
Grain whisky is made from a mash containing malted barley, but nowadays usually comprising mostly corn, by means of a single continuous distillation in a column still. The column still yields a blander, mellower product that costs much less to make and can be made in much greater quantities than malt whisky.
Though both Nikka and Suntory produce and bottle exceptionally unique and compelling grain whiskies, where it really finds its niche is as the base for blended whisky, the combination of one or more (usually several) malt whiskies with one or more (usually one) grain whiskies. In the context of Scotch whisky, far more malt whisky is sold as a component in blends than as single malt. While distillery-branded single malts are the most recognizable and prestigious product, in Japan as much as in Scotland, they are far eclipsed in commercial importance by the blends.
Looking to the future… and to the past
Unlike Scotland, where there are dozens of players of various sizes, some owning one or more distilleries, some merely blenders or independent bottlers, Japan’s whisky industry is dominated by two major firms, which are very much consolidated enterprises. So while a blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker might contain malts from a dozen or more different distilleries, some owned by its parent company (Diageo) and some not, Japanese blenders must source all the components for their final product in-house. Japan’s distilleries each craft several distinct styles of distillate, in order to give their blenders a diverse palette from which to work. Suntory’s Hakushu 12, for example, is a blend of unpeated and heavily-peated spirit, while Yamazaki 18 is not merely an older version of Yamazaki 12, but a completely distinct (though related) spirit. There is a great deal of experimenting with yeast, barley strains, fermentation times, etc. and the art of distilling is in a state of constant refinement.
But Japan’s distillers are just as likely to mine the past for inspiration. Nikka’s Yoichi distillery boasts the world’s only coal-fired pot stills used for making whisky. (pictured: a stoker at Yoichi distillery) The company’s companion distillery, Miyagikyo, features a pair of old-style Coffey stills, imported from Scotland, which they use to make a distinctive full-bodied grain whisky, as well as something called a Coffey Malt, which is a column-still whisky distilled from 100% malt. This style has since died out in Scotland, where column-distilled whisky cannot be called malt, but persists in Japan. The Japanese also experiment with different yeast strains and different wood types, most notably the distinctively aromatic Mizunara oak native to Japan. Mizunara oak is not the most effective material for making whisky casks, but its unmistakable fragrance leads most distillers to use small amounts of Mizunara-aged spirit in their whiskies.
It’s an excellent time to be a Japanese whisky lover. Japan’s distillers never stop tinkering with their product; one gets the sense that they’ll never be satisfied until it’s the best it can be, and perhaps not even then. The major players have now been joined by some exciting newer distilleries just now making it onto the export market. We’re constantly seeing and tasting new releases and I look forward to talking to you more about them. Kampai!