Introduction to Japanese Whisky

A little known fact: Japan produces some of the best single malts in the world. Since the¬†World Whisky Awards¬†started in 2007, a Japanese distillery has won ‘best single malt’ three out of seven years. Additionally Suntory’s Hibiki line has won five out of seven times for best blended single malt whisky. No doubt the Japanese distilleries are producing drams that rival the best from Scotland.

Yamazaki Distillery est. 1924

Production of Japanese whisky dates back to the 1870s, however commercial production didn’t begin until 1924 when the country’s first distillery, Kotobukiya (later to become Suntory), was opened. The two most influential names in Japanese whisky are Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. Torii founded Suntory’s Yamazki distillery and hired Taketsuru, who had been studying the art of distilling in Scotland, as the distillery manager. From the outset, the goal was to distill Japanese whisky for Japanese people. After helping establish the distillery, Taketsuru left in 1934 to start his own distillery – Dainipponkaju – which eventually changed its name to Nikka.

While Torii and Taketsuru may be the Godfathers of Japanese whisky, Keizo Saji is the one who modernized Japanese whisky and made it competitive with their Scottish counterparts. Keizo Saji, Shinjori Torii’s second son, launched Japan’s first single malt in 1984 beginning with Yamazaki 12. As president of his father’s company, Saji was a pioneer who had the foresight to launch a single malt whisky line. Previously, the Japanese distilleries produced exclusively blended whisky of dubious quality.

Japanese distilleries create their drams in the Scottish way, but have also added a few tweaks to make them uniquely Japanese. Most single malt whisky is aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, the Japanese adher to this practice. In addition they age whisky in plum-liquer barrels and mizunara (Japanese oak) to invoke Japan terroir.

Variety of pot stills at Hakushu Distillery

In Scotland, single malt whiskies are typically the pride and joy of distilleries while blends are a joyless, yet necessary profit-yielding task. It’s common for Scottish distilleries to share between brands in order to create blends. In contrast, the Japanese take blending very seriously and treat them with the same respect as their single malts. There is no trading between brands in Japan thus all the whisky distilled for the blends are created in-house. They have a variety of pots and stills specifically tailored for creating different drams used in crafting their blends. No wonder the Japanese consistently produce the best blended whisky in the world!

There are currently nine distilleries and a handful of brands in Japan, but only two brands are available in the US – Suntory and Nikka. A limited selection of their expressions are available Stateside but hopefully one day the portfolio of Japanese whisky is expanded here. To my knowledge only four Japanese single malts and two blended whiskys are available in the NY area.

List of Available Japanese Whisky in NYC

Suntory – Yamazki 12, 18, Hakushu 12, Hibiki 12 (Blended)
Nikka – Yoichi 15, Taketsuru 12 (Blended)

 

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