Japanese whisky production began around 1870, although the first commercial Japanese whisky production wasn’t until 1923 with the country’s first distillery, Yamazaki. What started as a conscious effort to replicate Scotch Whisky has catapulted into a new whisky style. Japanese whisky is now in a category of its own and has its own whisky presence, creating its own unique niche within the whisky market and achieving cult status around the world. While in many ways the style is reminiscent of the Scottish method, Japanese whisky’s twist on blended and melded traditional Scotch and American methods with new ideas has created a whole new whisky for those wanting to a taste of something new.
How Did Whisky Culture Enter Japan from the West?
The Japanese adopted the “act of seclusion” from 1636 to 1854 which prohibited imports and exports and trading with the outside and western world, including food and beverages. In the 1850s whisky was first brought to Japan by the arrival of the US Commodore Matthew Perry’s ‘Black Ships’ on a military expedition to reopen Japanese trade to the rest of the world. Upon arrival and to sweeten the deal and commemorate, the Americans invited the local Japanese officials to a banquet, presenting the emperor with celebratory gifts including a 110-gallon barrel of Scottish whisky. The diplomatic mission was topped off with a tipple of whisky. The officials (and even some powerful Shoguns!) were both impressed and somewhat tipsy from the amber-coloured, rich-flavoured gifts. The arrival of the Americans in 1853 was significant to have marked the end of Shogun subjugation and the country’s 220 years of intended isolation, opening their country up to the flavours of the world. including wine and spirits. What seemed like a small offering to sweeten the relationship between the Japanese and the Americans would spark a new industry in Japan. Whisky, amongst other wonderful new delicacies, captured the Japanese imagination. A few shochu and sake breweries started to brew whisky as early as the 1850s. However, it was not until the Meiji era, that the Western culture was fully embraced by Japan and the best whiskies became available to the consumer market. Although these were a pricey import and still out of reach for locals, enjoyed only as a luxury beverage by the rich and powerful until the 1900s. It is believed that the first westerners to taste Japanese whisky were American soldiers taking shore leave in 1918. Having ventured to Hakodate, they took their first sips of a brand called ‘Queen George’ and exclaimed that it was “Scottish whisky made in Japan”. It was not until 1923, that whisky in Japan took a historical turn with the opening of the first Japanese whisky distillery Yamazaki. Foundered by two of the most famous and influential Japanese whisky figures throughout time Masatake Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii. The journey to whisky for Taketsuru started in Settsu malt beverage company. Recognising his passion the company sent him to Scotland to study the art of whisky-making, he took his newfound knowledge back to Japan where he met entrepreneur Shinjiro Torii. Together they founded the Yamakazi Distillery.
From Shoguns & Emperors to the Masses
Five years later, Yamakazi distillery released Shirofuda. The whisky failed to catch on and this expression was widely rejected by the Japanese population. Shirofuda had the flavour profiles of Scotch whisky having been created from Taketsuru’s knowledge of the art of whisky making from Scotland. Essentially it was a Scotch whisky made in Japan. Much to the distaste of unaccustomed Japanese palates. Due to creative differences, after a decade of founding Yamazaki, Taketsuru decided to leave the distillery in 1934 and established his own distillery, Yoichi in Hokkaido (known today as Nikka) which started as an apple juice production. In 1940, Taketsuru released his first commercial whisky, named ‘rare old Nikka’. He later rebranded his company to Nikka Whisky. Following suit, in 1936, Kotobukiya changed its name to Suntory. A year later, the second whisky released from Suntory was Kakubin in 1937 which became an instant hit. Its easily unique tortoise shell bottle design and light, creamy, mildly fruity and gentle spiced taste continue to this day to be a winner.
Japanese Whisky Today
The passion and travels of Taketsuru paved the way for Japanese whisky to become a highly fashionable and globally recognised industry. Japanese whisky distilleries have exploded in numbers, with many whiskies winning top international whisky competitions. Drawing inspiration from Scotch whisky, the nation is now producing some of the best examples of the grain-based spirit, whilst adding its own unique twist. To this day, Japanese Whisky continues to win the hearts of many consumers. After the 2nd World War, the Japanese were prohibited from sourcing barrels from the Allied countries. So they looked to their own island and found Mizunara Oak that they could use to make barrels for their whisky. Mizunara Oak was especially difficult to work with and also very rare. The innovation of the Japanese enabled them to make barrels and they discovered an interesting spicy sandalwood tasting note in their spirit unlike any in the world. Mizunara Oak matured whisky is now highly sought after and commands a premium price.
Japanese Whisky Experts
We are Australia’s first and only specialist concept whisky store. We are passionate whisky enthusiasts; we live, drink and breathe whisky. Whether you are looking to unwind after a hard day’s work, browse the expertly-selected Japanese Whisky available, or look for that perfect gift for that special occasion, you’ve come to the right place. Start your journey here. Ivan Myers Whisky Buyer, Matcher & Seller.
Types of Japanese whisky
Blended Whisky Japanese Whisky&bsp;
Single Malt Japanese Whisky&bsp;
Coffey Grain Japanese Whisky&bsp;
What Makes Japanese Whisky?
Japanese whisky is made in a variety of locations across Japan, each with its own water source and climate which gives Japanese whisky its unique smooth and delicate flavour profile. Japanese whisky is modelled after the scotch tradition, double distilling malt or peated barley and then ageing in wood barrels. Due to similar production methods, Japanese whisky taste is similar to Scotch but there are small differences in flavour that make Japanese whisky unique.
The different tasting notes come from the nature and types of wood barrels used to age which may include old wine and even former bourbon barrels.
Japanese whisky tends to be less peated than Scotch, it is matured faster and tastes more refined and cleaner due to its climate and pure water sources.
Japanese whisky also commonly uses barley and is distilled in a continuous still, as opposed to pot stills used for scotch.
If you are already a lover of scotch whisky, your got to give Japanese whisky a shot. Whether are looking for smoky, peaty flavours reminiscent of scotch or the woodier notes of American whisky you’ll find a Japanese whisky you can enjoy.
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