No whisky drinkers should be surprised by the ever-growing popularity of Japanese whisky. Bartenders have been raving about it for years and it’s stocked at the most exclusive night jars, but it’s still a whisky for the purists: made, distilled, and mashed in the tradition of Scottish whisky for the best part of a century.
That’s because Japanese chemist Masataka Taketsuru studied whisky production in Scotland in 1918 and took his Scots-learnt skills back to drinks company Suntory to set up their Yamazaki distillery. He later founded Japan’s other big-name whisky producer, Nikka.
While homegrown whisky was popular in Japan during the latter part of the 20th century – the highball, whisky and soda, was introduced to younger and female drinkers in Japan and has been popular ever since – it was only exported in the early 2000s. It soon won awards and grew in popularity around the world. And its boom in popularity caught traditional distilleries by surprise.
“Some of the whiskies from Suntory and Nikka won so many awards that they ran out,” says Dom Roskrow, editor of Whisky Quarterly and author of Whisky Japan. “It’s a simple case that they laid down these whiskies but they didn’t lay down enough to meet increased demands. It started to become slightly exotic and mysterious.”
Yamazaki – the signature whisky from Suntory aged 18 years or over – is now virtually unfindable. Suntory’s Hakushu 12-year-old – the whisky drank by and made globally famous by Bill Murray in Lost in Translation – has ceased sales altogether. Nikka was forced to stop selling aged whiskies because they were running out of the stuff and would have gone bankrupt. Instead, the company put two non-age statement whiskies into the market. And whiskies from the now-defunct Karuizawa distillery can fetch over £25,000 per bottle on the secondary market.
“Karuizawas have become as collectable as any whisky in the world,” says Roskrow. “There are bars which offer 15 or 20 Karuizawas – and you’re talking about £200 or £300 for just a shot. Japanese whisky is now incredibly rare and collectable. And no one’s sure how much Japanese whisky has been drunk and how much is sitting in the cupboards of collectors across the world.”
It might sound like a trend, but as Brian Ashcraft, author of Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit, says, “This isn’t empty hype… Japan makes excellent whisky.”
While the production process is the same as traditional Scottish whisky, Japanese whisky does have distinctive notes.
“They use mizunara, which is Japanese oak,” Roskrow explains. “Every oak matures the whisky flavour a different way. Mizunara adds an incense-like flavour to some of their whiskies. It’s quite a delicate thing, but it’s a distinctive note that sets it apart.
“As we know from their cars, the Japanese are very good at taking things apart, finding out how they work, and putting them back together in a superior way. They were doing things very boldly. When they made peated whiskies they were heavily peated, when they used sherry casks, they were heavily sherried. The styles are very bold.
“But we found that beneath all that, there’s a sophisticated and delicate side to their whiskies. Their distillers are just becoming extremely good at making whisky and taking it into a slightly different direction to scotch.”
“There are other variations,” says author Brian Ashcraft. “Nikka was the first to run malt through a coffey still and is now the only distillery in the world that fires its pot stills by coal, which gives the Yoichi single malts a unique character. But just by the fact that Japanese people are making whisky, the result will be different.
“There is a late 19th-century expression ‘wakon yosai’, which means ‘Japanese spirit, Western technology.’ This means that if Japanese people use Western tech, learning or ideas to do something, the result will be different.”
Japanese distilleries are also amongst the most advanced in the world. While traditional scotch whisky producers have one signature bottle, Japanese distilleries are able to produce an incredible number of styles, which is born from one of the great Japanese whisky traditions: a fiercely guarded secrecy between rival companies Suntory and Nikka.
“In Scotland there are 120 distilleries and they all swap their malts to use as a base for their blends,” says Roskrow. “In Japan that doesn’t happen because Suntory and Nikka would never work together, and there are lots of distilleries in Japan.
“One thing they can do is invent a distillery that has lots of different stills, lots of different yeasts and time flows, different cuts, and different cask types – wine, port, sherry casks, and so on. This gives them the ability to make up to 150 styles of spirit at one distillery.”
Now with Japan about to host the Rugby World Cup later this year and the Olympics in 2020, they’re rumoured to be gearing production towards having plenty of top quality whisky available in time for those events.
Here are some of the best bottles currently available to get your new whisky obsession started.
Nikka from the Barrel
“This is one of the best Japanese whisky deals available,” says Ashcraft. “Bottled at 51.4 per cent, it’s not only a good value for money, but a truly delicious whisky with terrific raspberry and burnt wood notes.”
Yamazaki 12 Years Old
“This is a classic example of quality Japanese whisky,” says Roskrow. “It is as juicy as whisky gets, coveting the mouth. Imagine three different flavoured fruit smoothies topped off by alcohol. The nose of polished wood and fresh pine is a treat. There is plenty of fruit, including some citrus, and a wonderful sweet and fruity finish. You might struggle to find this and if you do, take care – quality Japanese whisky seems to be a licence to push up the price point.”
Ichiro’s Double Distilleries
“Ichiro Akuto of the Chichibu Distillery is one of the pioneers among Japan’s new breed of whisky makers,” says Ashcraft. “The Double Distilleries release is fascinating because it contains malt whisky from the now shuttered Hanyu Distillery, which Akuto’s father ran, and the Chichibu Distillery. It’s a look at the past and the present, with soft aromas that evoke autumn, pine cones and dried figs.”
“I’m a big fan of this distillery and was nervous about Nikka’s decision to cease production of its aged whiskies and replace them with this,” says Roskrow. “But this is a great and well-made whisky, and is something of a Yoichi ‘greatest hits’ package. Yoichi tends to be known for its peat flavours and oily texture, but some of its single cask offerings cover everything from sherried malt to hickory and clove to apple and pear. Here the whole range is hinted at, in a restrained and balanced way. Delightful.”
Suntory Kakubin Yellow Label
“High balls have long been popular in Japan, but honestly, you can enjoy cheap whisky in a high ball,” says Ashcraft. “I’ve been in restaurants that have promoted Hibiki high balls, which I think is rather odd, because all that soda and ice overpower Hibiki’s nuances. For me, I love a high ball with Kakubin, which is a readily available Suntory whisky that’s cheap and sold at the supermarket. It’s a prefect summer beverage.”
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
“If you’ve never had Japanese whisky and like softer, floral blends, this is a good place to start,” says Ashcraft, “Japanese Harmony is very smooth with honeyed wood aromas and a wonderfully soft mouth feel. For me, the basic Japanese Harmony release is far superior to the 12-year Hibiki blend. Cheaper, too.”
“This is the first private bottling of Japanese whisky from Dekanta,” says founder Makiyo Masa. “It’s a beautiful liquid from a little-known producer in the Japanese whisky industry, with a finish that has been praised for its innovation – the whisky spent time in an ex-Port Ellen Scotch whisky cask, as an homage to the origins of Japanese whisky in Scotland. It makes this a very unique product, with fewer than 300 bottles available.”