When the authoritative publication Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible named Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the “best whisky in the world” in 2015, it was a pronouncement felt around the world of distilling. Despite previous awards for Japanese Scotches, most observers had long assumed that great Scotch could only be made in its native Scotland. But here was a Japanese distillery coming out on top.
This had happened ten years before, when Nikka’s Yoichi whisky and Suntory’s Hibiki had won top awards. But after Murray’s declaration, the floodgates opened for all Japanese whiskies, and what had been consumed only in Japan came to be in such worldwide demand that stocks ran short and auctions began fetching sky-high prices for a single bottle of Japanese whisky. A bottle of 1960 Karuizawa Ichiro single malt from Japan’s smallest distillery, Venture Whisky, fetched an eye-popping $118,500 at auction in Hong Kong in 2015.
Those who’d followed the maturation of the Japanese whisky industry over nearly a century were probably thinking, “It’s about time.” But the arc of that story reads like a typical tale of Japanese success, beginning with the devoted study of a foreign art, the gradual adaptation to Japanese tastes, and the constant refinement and exquisite attention to detail.
In the case of Japanese whisky, most distillers still use malted or even peated barley imported from Scotland, and their choice of waters and locations for the distilleries have led to the creation of what are widely considered some of the best whiskies in the world.
Nevertheless, Murray’s 2015 declaration was a pivotal moment that marked a culmination of a history, and confirmation of an industry, that started when the first commercial bottle was released in 1924. But the groundwork for that bottle had been laid long before, beginning in earnest in 1918, in – of course – Scotland.
It was in 1918 that Masataka Taketsuru went to Scotland to study the making of Scotch whisky. Typically studious and detail-oriented, as is common in Japanese culture, Taketsuru came back to Japan in 1920 with a Scottish wife and a deep knowledge of and subtle appreciation for the ingredients and processes that contribute to making the world’s finest whiskies. He was soon hired by Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Japan’s oldest distillery, Suntory, and together, the men essentially founded the Japanese whisky industry.
As is often the case of the Japanese and their adoption of foreign traditions, Takesuru and Torii first aimed to recreate the qualities of classic Scotch, importing bourbon barrels and malted and peated barleys from Scotland, and other distillers followed suit. But over the years, some Japanese distillers have adopted such local elements as barrels made from native mizunara oak trees, as well as locally-grown barley, moving beyond the perfect copy to something uniquely Japanese.
Together, Torii and Taketsuru grew the Yamazaki Distillery outside of Kyoto for more than a decade. Taketsuru left in 1934 to pursue his notion that a whisky could be best developed in the cool highlands of Hokkaido, where the landscape roughly echoes the windswept highlands that produce classic Scotch. The company that eventually emerged is one of Japan’s best-known: Nikka.
Japan still has only 10 distilleries compared to Scotland’s more than 100, and Japanese whiskies, while owing to the original, are growing to be quite different. This is due in part to the structure of the industry, and in part to Japanese tastes.
Japanese whisky makers developed their products to appeal to the uncommonly subtle Japanese palate, incorporating more local grains and even woods (in the casks) to create something uniquely Japanese: sometimes lighter, for sipping, or heavier, since the Japanese often drink their whiskey with water, or soda, or even with a squeeze of lemon. Many Japanese also drink whiskey with food, a less-common practice elsewhere, so the flavors can’t be overpowering. Japanese whiskies need to be versatile and robust, some aimed at discriminating Scotch sippers and others at less-exacting cocktail drinkers.
The structure of the industry also matters: While in Scotland, blenders use the products of a variety of different distillers, in Japan most distillers make their own blends, from their own products. While single-malt Scotches get a lot of notice among aficionados, most whiskies are blends, made from different batches of single malt, and most are not sipped, but are used in a variety of cocktails such as the ever-popular highball.
This had traditionally limited the range of Japanese whiskies, because of the narrow choice of stocks available for blending. But in recent years, the distilleries have expanded their own creations, giving their own blenders more to work with, and making even Japanese blends more diverse and exciting, and a force to reckon with in the world of whisky.