Japanese Whiskey - Award winning, but still largely available only in Japan
Japanese Whiskey production began around 1870, but the first commercial production was in 1923, when the country's first distillery,
The style of Japanese whiskey is more similar to that of Scotch whisky than Bourbon, and thus the spelling typically follows the Scotch convention (i.e. omitting the letter "e").
There are several companies producing whiskey in Japan. Perhaps the two most well known are Suntory and Nikka.
Both of these produce blended as well as single malt whiskies
One of the most influential figures in the history of Japanese whisky was Masataka Taketsuru.
He studied the art of distilling in Scotland, and brought this knowledge back to Japan in the early 1920s.
He was instrumental in the creation of Japan's first two whisky distilleries. Whilst working for Kotobukiya (later to become part of Suntory) he helped to establish the Yamazaki Distillery.
In 1934 he left Kotobukiya to form his own company, Dainipponkaju which would later change its name to Nikka.
In this new venture he established the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido.
There are currently around ten Japanese whiskey distilleries, which include:
- owned by Suntory, located near Osaka/Kyoto on the main island of Honshu.
Hakushu - also owned by Suntory.
- owned by Nikka, located on the Northern island of Hokkaido
Sendai / Miyagikyo - also Nikka, located to the North of the main island, near Sendai.
Karuizawa - owned by Mercian.
Chichibu / Hanyu, located in the city of Chichibu in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo on the main island.
Fuji / Gotemba, owned by Kirin.
The reputation of Japanese whiskey has followed a course which bears some similarity to opinions on New World wine.
For some time it was believed by many that whiskey made in the Scotch style, but not produced in Scotland, could not possibly measure up to the standards of the traditional Scotch distilleries.
Until fairly recently the market for Japanese whiskies was almost entirely domestic.
However, in recent years, a number of blind tastings have been organised by Whisky Magazine, which have included Japanese single malts in the line up, along with malts from distilleries considered to be among the best in Scotland.
On more than one occasaion, echoing the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, the results have had Japanese single malts (particularly those of Yoichi and Yamazaki)
scoring higher than their Scotch counterparts.
As a result it is now widely accepted amongst malt connoisseurs that Japanese whiskey has come of age
The production of Japanese whiskey began as a conscious effort to recreate the style of Scotch whisky.
Pioneers like Taketsuru carefully studied the process of making Scotch whisky, and went to great lengths in an attempt to recreate that process in Japan.
The location of Yoichi in Hokkaido was chosen particularly for its terrain and climate, which were in many ways reminiscent of Scotland (although financial constraints resulted in the first distillery actually being built in the more convenient location of Yamazaki on the main island).
Necessities due to the sort of resources readily accessible, however, led to distinct differences between Scotch and Japanese whiskies. The grains which compose the mash, for example, generally are maize, millet, sometimes rice, and some few others—wheat and rye are almost never used in Japanese whiskey.
Additionally, the initial mash fermentation process in Japan typically uses an agent similar to the koji used in sake fermentation.
These two major differences lend Japanese whiskey its distinction from other whiskies produced throughout the world.
One facet of the style of Japanese whiskey comes from the way in which blended whiskey is produced, and the differing nature of the industry in Japan.
Despite the recent rise of interest in single malt whiskies, the vast proportion of whiskey sold in the world is still blended.
The requirements of blended whiskies are one of the main driving forces behind the diversity of malts produced by Scotland's distilleries. Typically each distillery will focus on a particular style, and blenders will choose from this wide array of elements offered by all the different distilleries to make their product.
Whilst sometimes a particular brand of blended whiskey may be owned by a company that also owns one or more distilleries, it is also quite common for trading to take place between the various companies. The components of a blend may involve malt whiskey from a number of distilleries, and each of these could concievably be owned by a different company.
In Japan however a different model is generally adopted. Typically the whiskey companies own both the distilleries and the brands of blended whiskies
These companies are often reluctant to trade with their competitors. So a blended whiskey in Japan will generally only contain malt whisky from the distilleries owned by that same company (sometimes supplemented with malts imported from Scottish distilleries).
This clearly means that blenders in Japan have in the past had a significantly reduced palette from which to create their products. It has been suggested that this may have been a limiting factor in the success of Japanese blends, particularly outside of Japan.
As a reaction to this, individual distilleries in Japan have becoming increasingly more diverse over recent years. It is quite common for a single Japanese distillery to produce a wide range of styles, from the smokey and peaty style of Islay, through the heavily sherried, to the lighter and more delicate floralnotes of Speyside.
The diversity and innovation to be found in Japanese distilleries may be one of the contributing factors to their recent high profile and acclaim in the global arena.
Japanese Whisky from the increasingly recognised Yamazaki distillery
A definitive guide to all the Japanese Whisky brands
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A list of great books on Whiskey