Winning fans and awards the world over, the popularity of Japanese whisky has become a 21st century phenomenon…
Japan was introduced to scotch whisky in the late 19th century, when sailors and traders shipped the spirit into coastal port towns – but it wasn’t until decades later that commercial production of whisky really took off. Two men are credited with kickstarting Japan’s love affair with whisky: Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru established the historic Yamazaki distillery together in 1924, producing whisky in the traditional western scotch style, distributing it across the country, and inspiring others to do the same.
Since those humble beginnings in the first half of the 20th century, Japanese whisky production has transformed from a handful of domestic distilleries, into a thriving international industry. Today, Japanese whisky rivals western scotch for the attention of whisky lovers: if you’re yet to experience a Japanese dram for yourself, it’s time to learn why the spirit has become one of the most exciting features of the global whisky landscape…
Japan itself plays a part in the character of the whisky it produces – not least thanks to its mountainous topography. Japanese whisky is distilled at high-altitude – around 700 to 800 metres above sea level – which makes it easier to remove unwanted toxins from the spirit, and subsequently achieve a greater range of aromas and smoother texture. Japan’s natural environment is important in more ways than one: the purity of the mountain water used in the distillation process contributes to a characteristic lightness and sweetness that distinguishes the spirit on the international landscape.
Mizunara and Bamboo
Japan’s distillers may choose to age their whisky in Mizunara oak – an indigenous wood not normally available to western producers. Mizunara oak is porous so it has to be used in conjunction with other types of wood during maturation, but is also known for its high levels of aroma and flavour-stimulating lactones, which produce profiles including notes of citrus fruit, coconut and sandalwood. Bamboo is also a feature of the Japanese distillation process: in addition to the traditional charcoal filtration method, bamboo filtration mellows the spirit significantly, and reinforces that aforementioned smoothness of texture.
Mastering the Blend
In comparison to Scotland, Japan is home to a smaller number of distilleries – and nor does Japan share its spiritual ancestor’s culture of inter-distillery trade of barrels and malts. This relative lack of commercial diversity has led Japanese producers to value the blend as much as the single malt – as master-distillers use their own malt stock to innovate and experiment across the flavour spectrum. Consequently, Japan produces higher number of impressive blended whiskies – many of which win international recognition.
Given its typical lightness and sweetness, Japanese whisky is a more flexible and versatile drink than most varieties of western scotch. This attribute makes Japanese whisky suitable for a range of drinking experiences, including food pairings – in fact, it’s typical to see the spirit served at lunch and dinner in Japan since it works especially well with the distinctive umami flavours of Asian cuisine. Cocktails are also an attractive option for adventurous Japanese whisky fans: the spirits can be used to put a fresh spin on classics, or provide possibilities for fresh concoctions.
Japanese whisky has no shortage of fans, but its global prestige has been consistently reinforced by remarkable performances in internationally-recognised whisky competitions. In 2014, the Jim Murray Whisky Bible named the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask the best whisky in the world – a ‘bottle-shock’ moment which announced Japanese whisky on the international landscape. In 2018, Japan’s whiskies are as competitive as ever: at the 2018 World Whisky awards the Hakushu 25 Year Old won Best Single Malt, the Taketsuru 17 Year Old won Best Blended Malt, and the Ichiro’s Malt & Grain Limited Edition won Best Blended Limited.
While a typical western scotch ‘experience’ might be a dram savoured after dinner, perhaps by a roaring log fire, Japanese whiskies lend themselves to a range of situations, from a quiet, relaxing drink in solitude – to nights out, and dinner parties with friends and family. In Japan, the most popular way of enjoying whisky is the ‘highball’: whisky served with soda water, on ice, in a style perfect for the casual atmosphere of bars and restaurant. The highball style is popular in most Japanese drinking establishments but it is enjoyed so widely that it can even be found in vending machines in airports and hotels.
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