The Rise of Japanese Whisky
A word so synonymous with Scotland - but for how much longer?
Are the renegade Japanese distillers about to steal the Scots' crown once and for all...?
A LITTLE HISTORY
The very first Japanese whisky distillery was opened in Yamazaki, an area between Kyoto and Osaka, in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii. During a time when most Japanese drank only sake, this visionary entrepreneur had transformed a small shop selling imported wines into the successful Kotobukiya company (later renamed to Suntory).
Torii however did not act alone. His first distillery manager, Masataka Taketsuru, widely considered ‘The Father of Japanese Whisky’, was a key figure in Japanese whisky manufacturing.
Taketsuru came from a long line of sake brewers and had studied chemistry with the intention of carrying on the family tradition. His employer, a Japanese liquor company, sent him to Scotland to immerse himself in the whisky tradition. He studied at the University of Glasgow, completed distillery apprenticeships and learnt first-hand the art of blending. When he returned to Japan in 1920 with a Scottish wife and dreams of malt and mash, he found that his original sponsor had shifted priorities. Fortuitously, he was recruited by Shinjiro Torii and the two began to produce Japan’s first whisky.
The Yamazaki distillery is still in operation today. Suntory ages their whisky in different barrels made of different woods and sizes and then expertly blends them to create exceptionally balanced single-malts. They use mizunara oak, which is used only in Japan, to add subtle smoky flavours and hints of tropical fruit. Suntory later opened another distillery, Hakushu, in the forest of Mt. Kaikomagatake. The Hakushu single-malts tend to have hints of green apple, jasmine soft and vanilla with a dry finish. It is the Yamazaki and Hakushu whiskies blended together that create Suntory’s highly-regarded Hibiki line of blended whisky.
Although the story of Japanese whisky starts with Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery, it doesn’t end there. In 1934 Taketsuru, having completed his ten-year contract left Yamazaki to establish his own distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, which (though inconveniently located) he had always considered to be the ideal site in Japan for whisky-making, similar in many ways to the Scottish town where he had studied. Taketsuru’s Yoichi distillery was the beginning of Nikka, the other major player in the Japanese whisky industry. Nikka later opened a second distillery in Miyagikyo where the notable “Nikka Coffey” whiskies are made in imported ‘Coffey stills’ from Scotland.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
A combination of things catapulted Japanese whisky into the limelight. Firstly, success in Japan led to increased production which meant that international distribution became a real option.
In 2010, Yamazaki 1984 won the highest award, crowned “Supreme Champion Spirit” at the 15th International Spirits Challenge. Suntory Liquors were also named “Distiller of the Year”. In the same year, at the Icons of Whisky Awards, Suntory was the first Japanese company to win the acclaimed “Whisky Distiller of the Year” award. These achievements were firsts for any Japanese company and the international market started to take notice.
In 2014, again at the International Spirits Challenge, Suntory Liquors was Named “Distiller of the Year” for the fourth time, and the third year in succession, having proven over the previous few years that the whisky created was on par with that of Scottish origin.
Then in 2015, Jim Murray, a highly respected whisky critic, named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best in the world for its fruity notes, delicate sweetness, and “near indescribable genius.” To add insult to injury: No Scotch cracked Murray’s top five that year.
The continued success of Japanese offerings was a wake-up call to Scotland that they’re not being as creative and innovative. Although rooted in Scottish methods of fermenting and distilling malted barley, then aged it in oak casks, the Japanese have developed their own approach to making whisky that emphasizes continuous improvements over long-held traditions.
Blends such as Hibiki and Nikka From the Barrel are rightly lauded for their quality – but it is the experimental side of Japanese blends that appeals to modern drinkers. From different peating levels to the use of Japanese mizunara oak and plum wine cask finishes, to innovative ageing techniques (such as the old tunnel vaults Togouchi use), Japanese whiskies have proven to be the alternative so long-awaited by drinkers today who continue to look for high-quality drams, but with a real point of difference.
With this popularity unfortunately comes a price. Both Suntory and Nikka have had to shelve some of their very popular marks for the time being. Hibiki 12 has been replaced with the non-age statement Harmony, and Yamazaki 12 is immediately out of stock whenever a small allocation lands on site. Nikka have also announced that essentially all of their age-specific single malts in the Yoichi and Miyagikyo lines, and half a dozen other labels, were being delisted – but at least replaced with the likes of the exceptional Super Nikka Revival.
In more positive news, the pairing of Japanese whisky with Japanese haute cuisine (kaiseki) is an exciting trend on the rise. Chef Kenichi Hashimoto is leading the way, manipulating Suntory' spirits in subtle ways, playing with temperature and flavour accents to complement his cuisine, creating pairings such as Hibiki 17 Year Old Whisky served over cubes of ice flecked with yuzu zest and an elegant matsutake mushroom broth with hamo (conger eel), prawns, and gingko nuts.
Domestic consumption of Japanese whisky was declining until 2009 but is on the rise due to the introduction of 'the highball'. Japan's younger drinkers found old-style whisky bars intimidating, so Suntory developed 'highball bars' as a way to combat this and also to get its cheaper whiskies into other bars where they could be sold as an alternative to beer.
In the last six years, this trend has certainly taken hold of Japan. In Tokyo, bars such as Campbell Toun Loch, is no bigger than a large cupboard, but contains hundreds of bottles of whisky, three deep on the counter. When you order, the barman places the entire bottle down in front of you as if he expects it to be polished off. This is a bar for the connoisseur. At the other end of the scale is the likes of Marugin, a noisy, bustling bar in the heart of Ginza district, that attracts lively early-evening groups, eating, smoking and knocking back highballs. Marugin even has whisky on draught.
Will this whisky-drinking revolution make its way to Europe? Only time will tell. For now the Suntory and Nikka offerings available remain very much premium products and their share of the UK market is tiny when compared with Scotch whisky.
That said, we'd be very surprised if there aren't an increasing number of Japanese whisky bottles appearing on back bars and homebars, offering consumers an exciting alternative to the single malts of old...