Whiskey Dossier: Japan

Two large and ambitious firms dominate the Japanese Whiskey trade, Suntory and Nikka. In terms of style, Japanese Whiskeys tend to resemble those produced in Scotland due to their dryness and the use of malted barley. That said, they have developed style of their own that is currently recognized as classical and elegant.

Production of Whiskey on a small, local scale began in Japan in the 1870s, but the first commercial distillery proved to be Yamazaki, which opened in 1924. The guiding light of Yamazaki was a visionary named Shinjiro Torii, whose day job was as a pharmaceutical wholesaler and the founder of Kotobukiya that later evolved into the beverage giant Suntory.

Torii had a favorite employee, Masataka Taketsuru, who with gusto took on the study of Whiskey by traveling to Scotland after World War I. He returned to Japan and helped Torii to establish Yamazaki in 1924. Ten years later, he left Yamazaki to start his own company in Hokkaido, which he called Dainnpponkaju that later became Nikka, Yamazaki’s main rival. Today, there are nine Whiskey distilleries – Yamazaki and Hakushu (Suntory), Yoichi and Miyagiko (Nikka), Fuji Gotemba (Kirin), Chichibu, Shinshu (Hombo), Eigashima, and White Oak.

Japanese Whiskeys, comprised of malted barley, are distilled twice in pot-stills. To distinguish their Whiskeys from those of Scotland to whom they are often compared, the Japanese sometimes utilize indigenous oaks, such as minzunara that is high in vanillins. Minzunara oak imparts unique flavors that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

While single malt Whiskeys, like Yoichi and Yamazaki, are the primary calling card of Japanese distilleries, blended Whiskeys, such as Hibiki, are becoming more prevalent and admired by discerning Whiskey lovers. The fact that Japanese Whiskeys have risen to the ranks of the world’s foremost Whiskeys in the last generation speaks well of the dedication to quality of the distillers of Japan.