Japanese distilleries are putting their whisky on the map: what should you know about this exciting corner of the whisky landscape?
Although Japan has been producing whiskies commercially for almost a century, only recently have its distilleries made a substantial impact on international drinkers. From relatively humble beginnings, Japanese whisky producers have been working to create a space for themselves on the global stage – and producing spirits, which have won both fans and prestigious awards.
Today, the popularity of Japanese whiskies continues to gather momentum – and whisky lovers shouldn’t be surprised to find bottles on the shelves of their favourite vendors, in bars and restaurants, and the private collections of their fellow connoisseurs. If you’re beginning your own exploration of Japanese whisky, it’s worth understanding the landscape – and, with that in mind, this guide is designed to address some of the most common questions…
What is the history of Japanese whisky?
Production of whisky in Japan dates back as far as the mid-19th century, when western sailors and importers introduced the spirit to the population. It wasn’t until 1924, when the ‘godfathers’ of Japanese whisky, Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, opened the country’s first commercial distillery in Yamazaki. Drawing heavily on a scotch whisky heritage (Taketsuru had studied whisky production in Scotland), the Yamazaki distillery popularised whisky across the country – Taketsuru went on to establish the Nikka distillery in 1934, and whisky production continued to gather pace.
What is Japanese whisky made from?
From a practical perspective, Japanese whisky is not significantly different from other global incarnations of the spirit – in that it is made from malted barleys, mashed and fermented, distilled, and then matured in oak barrels until it is ready for drinking. That perspective however, only offers a glimpse into what has made Japanese whisky so popular…
Is Japanese whisky scotch?
Not really. While there are similarities to its spiritual ancestor, on first impression, Japanese whisky distinguishes itself from scotch by a characteristic lightness, sweetness, and smooth texture. Looking deeper, there’s also a general lack of peat in Japanese whisky: since it’s harder to find naturally-occurring peat in Japan, distillers have to import it to give their whisky smoke and, while some take this approach, most others opt for an unpeated, less-smokey expression.
So, what makes Japanese whisky unique?
Cosmetic differences, like bottling, presentation and drinking culture, aside, Japanese whisky sets itself apart from scotch in the following ways…
- Production: The distillation of Japanese whisky involves certain unique methodologies – bamboo filtration, for example, is often used instead of charcoal filtration to mellow and enrich the spirit. Yeast is a factor, too: Japanese distilleries tend to use a greater variety of yeast strains – a trait reflected in the wider range of bottles produced by individual distilleries.
- Environment: Japan’s distilleries are located at a much higher altitude (generally 700-800 metres above sea level), which results in a lower boiling point for water and the easier removal of unwanted chemicals. This factor allows for a much greater range of aromas and flavour profiles in the final product.
- Water: Often drawn from mountain springs, the purity of Japan’s mineral water creates a lighter, more refined whisky, and also contributes to its characteristic sweetness.
- Wood: Japanese distilleries often use indigenous woods – including the unique Mizunara Oak to store their spirit. Mizunara oak is known to contain high levels of aroma-stimulating lactones, imparting distinct floral tones, along with hints of sandalwood and coconut.
- Blends: In Japan, blended whiskies hold as much prestige as single malts. This trend is thanks in part to the cultural value of balance and harmony, which encourages master-blenders to experiment and innovate with in-house malts, and perfect their desired flavour profiles.
How do I drink Japanese whisky?
The drinking culture, which surrounds Japanese whisky, is an important part of its identity. The lighter, sweeter character of the spirit makes for a more versatile drink – one which is suitable for a range of occasions: from a quiet dram in front of the fire, to a dinner party with friends and family. In fact, the most popular way of drinking whisky in Japan is the casual ‘highball’ style: whisky mixed with soda water, on ice, and perhaps a slice of lemon. Japanese whisky is also an ideal food pairing and even cocktail mixer – the spirit tends not to overpower other flavours, which makes it an interesting option for bartenders and restaurateurs.
What is the best Japanese whisky?
Discussion of the ‘best’ Japanese whisky is complicated by the sheer range of bottles individual Japanese distilleries produce, but it’s worth remembering that Japanese offerings have been ranking in prestigious international competitions for decades now. A ‘breakthrough’ example might be the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask, which, in 2014, was named the best whisky in the world by the Jim Murray Whisky Bible – beating traditionally dominant Scottish rivals. Since then, Japanese whiskies have continued to win plaudits, most recently at the 2018 World Whisky Awards, where the Ichiro’s Malt & Grain Limited Edition won World’s Best Blended Limited, the Taketsuru 17 Year Old won World’s Best Blended Malt, and the Hakushu 25 Year Old won World’s Best Single Malt.
Is Japanese whisky expensive?
Japanese whisky has become a spirit enjoyed by whisky experts and casuals alike, and that popularity has obviously led to an increase in commercial availability – meaning fans can get their hands on their favourite brands and bottles without too much trouble, and without breaking the bank. If you’re looking for a decent dram, it’s perfectly possible to find a bottle of Japanese whisky for around £50 at your local supermarket, while speciality vendors offer a more expansive choice – of quality and value – ranging from the hundreds of pounds, to the thousands.
Which are the most expensive Japanese whiskies?
The growing commercial availability of Japanese whisky is not to say that the spirit has lost any of its exclusivity or wow-factor: whisky aficionados will be pleased to know there are plenty of rare and collectible bottles out there… with prices not for the faint-hearted. Examples include the Hibiki 35 Year Old, bottles of which can go for over $20,000, and the Yamazaki Single Malt 50 Year Old, a bottle of which sold for $300,000 in January 2018. The artistry and style of Japan goes hand in hand with the presentation of its whisky – so there are plenty of opportunities for dedicated collectors to find something eye-catching for their cabinet.