When talking about whisky, Japan may not be the first place that springs to mind. The dark spirit is still most famed when coming from its origin, Scotland, and other renowned makers are western countries.
However, Japan has been brewing whisky for almost a very long time now; and her first (and most famous) distillery will turn one hundred years old in 2023. A distinctive blending system and an interesting drinking culture all lend further intrigue to Japanese whisky culture, the best in the east and with a fair share of admirers all over the world.
A brief history of Japanese Whisky
The story of Japanese whisky is the story of two men and their two whiskey houses.
Shinjiro Torii was a entrepreneur who had earlier started an alcohol import company and was looking to begin distilling whisky in Japan. Masataka Taketsuru, born into a family of sake makers, had travelled to Scotland for university and studied the art of making whisky apprenticing for several whisky houses.
The two men came together and established what Japanese first commercial distillery in Yamazaki in 1923, under what was to become Suntory, today the largest whiskey house in Japan. The first single malt whiskey made in Japan, the Suntory Whiskey Shirofuda, was finally unveiled 6 years later.
The two men’s relations eventually waned however, due to disagreements regarding the future of the company. Masataka Taketsuru, believed that Hokkaido, further north and much colder, had a more similar climate to Scotland and was best suited for their next distillery. Shinjiro Torii preferred to stay in central regions nearer to the major markets of Kanto and Kansai.
Masataka Taketsuru left in 1934 and started his own whiskey house and distillery in Hokkaido. His whiskey house was to become Nikka Whiskey.
How Japanese Whisky is made and blended.
Besides Suntory and Nikka, Japan has few other whiskey houses. In total, there are less than forty whisky distilleries in the whole country. In comparison, Scotland has more than a hundred distilleries.
This simple fact has a huge impact on the way blend whisky is made in Japan.
In Scotland and other western countries, the hundreds of different distilleries have a system of trading raw distillates amongst themselves. Because each distillery has different types of fermenters, fermentation processes, stills and casks; in swapping raw distillates the distilleries work together to create blended whiskies with unique flavors. Some say that blend whiskies are more delicious then basic whiskies.
Because Japan has less than forty whisky distilleries, there is no real need or system for trading distillates. Instead, Japanese distilleries are self-reliant. It creates multiple raw distillates and also owns more fermenters and stills than then average western distillery. One Japanese distillery has the capability and skills to create more than fifty different types of flavorful blend whiskies by itself.
Combine that with a Japanese culture of relentless perfectionism and you can see why Suntory and Nikka whiskies are beginning to capture more than a few whisky awards from around the world.
How whisky is drunk in Japan
Again, the way Japanese consume whisky has roots in, and is similar to the way scotch whisky is drunk. In Japan it is served neat (especially in more expensive drinks), on the rocks, cut with water or mixed in a cocktail with soda.
However, it is with the latter two, where the Japanese take things a step further to create their own unique drinking habits.
Mizuwari (Literally Cut with water)
Cutting your scotch with water is done in Scotland, but not commonly. In seasonal Japan, it is popular to mix long drinks to last in the unrelenting summer heat. In winter, the opposite is true, and Japanese often order Oyuuwari (Cut with hot water) to enjoy the spirit warm in the biting cold.
Highball (With soda mixer)
The highball is by far the most common way whisky is drunk in Japan. In upper class parlors, bartenders carefully perform a routine with picked ice, a deep pour of whisky finished with an extra-bubbly topping of soda. It’s popularity rivals that of other household alcohols, and in fact whisky highballs in particularly are sold in cans (much like beers) in supermarkets all over the country.
Japanese Whisky may not be as well known as other Japanese alcohols, but it is a beverage that has also received unequivocal care and attention from Japanese stalwarts for a century now, with results that will delight your taste buds.
We hope that having read our guide, you will give Japanese whisky, along with its unique drinking and and blending culture, a shot the next time you are pining for a deliciously smooth nightcap.