Japanese Whisky Growing In Popularity
The first commercial production Japanese whisky began in 1924 upon the opening of the country's first distillery, Yamazaki. Broadly speaking the style of Japanese whisky is more similar to that of Scotch whisky than other major styles of whisky.
There are several companies producing whisky in Japan, but the two best-known and most widely available are Suntory and Nikka. Both of these produce blended as well as single malt whiskies and blended malt whiskies, with their main blended whiskies being Suntory kakubin (square bottle), and Black Nikka Clear. There are also a large number of special bottlings and limited editions.
Since 2011, there are around nine active whisky distilleries in Japan:
Yamazaki: owned by Suntory, between Osaka/Kyoto on the main island of Honshū.
Hakushu: owned by Suntory, in Yamanashi Prefecture on Honshū.
Yoichi: owned by Nikka, on the northern island of Hokkaidō:
Miyagikyo (formerly Sendai): also owned by Nikka, in the north of the main island, near the city of Sendai.
Fuji Gotemba: owned by Kirin, at the foot of Mount Fuji in Shizuoka.
Chichibu: near Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. This is the new Chichibu distillery, founded by Ichiro Akuto, grandson of the distiller at Hanyu. It opened in 2008.
Shinshu: owned by Hombo, in Nagano Prefecture on the main island of Honshū.
White Oak: owned by Eigashima Shuzou, in Hyogo on the main island of Honshū.
Eigashima Distillery: Eigashima Shuzo is located in Akashi City, Hyogo Prefecture, and first acquired a whisky-making license in 1919. The new distillery was established in 1984.
Since 2000, Japanese whiskies have won awards, including top honors, in international competitions, notably Suntory. At the 2003 International Spirits Challenge, Suntory Yamazaki won a gold medal, and Suntory whiskies continued to win gold medals every year through 2013, with all three malt whiskies winning a trophy (the top prize) in either 2012 (Yamazaki 18 years old and Hakushu 25 years old) or 2013 (Hibiki 21 years old), and Suntory itself winning distiller of the year in 2010, 2012, and 2013.
The resultant acclaim nudged Japan's distilleries to market overseas. Further, in recent years a number of blind tastings have been organized by Whisky Magazine, which have included Japanese single malts in the lineup, along with malts from distilleries considered to be among the best in Scotland. On more than one occasion, the results have had Japanese single malts (particularly those of Nikka's Yoichi and Suntory's Yamazaki) scoring higher than their Scottish counterparts.
In May 2015, there were two official single cask festival bottlings: two Japanese whiskies (a Chichibu six-YO 2009/2015 and a Mars Komagatakefour YO 2011/2015). Both were excellent – and much sought-after – but the Mars seemed to be the crowd favorite. Seeing as this was the first single cask from the ‘new regime’ (i.e. distillate from after the two-decade hiatus in production), it seems to spell good things for the future.
Prices keep going up, but that is a discussion we will keep for a rainy day!
The Hakushu distillery in central Japan was once the largest whisky distillery in the world, with an annual production capacity of 12 million litres. One of the best places online to discover more about Japanese whisky is nonjatta. blogspot.com. Their site is probably the most comprehensive sources on Japanese single malts for English speakers.
Considering there are only nine active single-malt distilleries in Japan, the variety of styles is startling. All share a basic DNA with traditional Scotch: Japanese whisky also starts with malted barley imported from Scotland, because it's the best and the cheapest. And yet there are differences. The Japanese don't acquire whiskies from other distilleries to make their distinctive blends, the way the Scots do. Instead, each distillery creates its many in-house variations using an array of copper pot stills and wooden barrels.
The resulting whiskies are more floral, with softer, silkier textures, than those from Scotland. At Nikka's Yoichi distillery, the pot stills are heated by coal fires, as opposed to steam, which gives their single malts richer, peatier flavors. And the Yamazaki distillery's use of virgin mizunara barrels contributes aromas of temple incense and sandalwood.
Climate and landscape are also key flavour influencers. Whiskies produced at higher elevations, such as those at Suntory's Hakushu distillery in the southern Japanese Alps, are notably clean and crisp, as are those from the Fuji-Gotemba distillery, which uses snowmelt from Mt. Fuji.
Part of the growing interest in Japanese whisky is that "people crave the new, the unique and the unobtainable."
Among the most-prized collectibles are single-cask bottles from Japan's storied, now-closed distilleries. For instance, UK-based Number One Drinks Co. obtained the distribution rights to the remaining 364 casks of Karuizawa. The legendary 1967, with notes of tobacco, sherry, dark chocolate and roasted coffee beans, originally sold in 2009 for $380 but now costs 10 times that, while the 1968 sold at a Bonhams auction in Hong Kong for almost $6,000, far above the high estimate.
Equally rare are Ichiro's Malt Card whiskies from the shuttered Hanyu distillery, with labels that look like playing cards; a set of 13 brought $12,642 at Bonhams's November Hong Kong sale.
The Three Top Bottles
Japanese whiskies aren't just Scotch made in Japan. They embody a different, especially delicate aesthetic, based on harmony and precision. They're more subtle Zen garden than sturdy Scottish kilt. The top bottles aren't easy to find, even in Japan, but they're worth the search.
The good news is that
starting mid-2021, we can expect to see these very whiskies at down to earth
prices, as whisky distilleries are sprouting by the day, pushing out a glut of
good malt and blended whiskies. Don’t give up on the Japanese whisky hunt, because
with enough persistence, you can still find age statement bottles, along with
plenty of newer, more readily available blends.
From Suntory's mountain distillery, found deep within the forests of Mount Kaikomagatake, Hakushu is a single malt that takes liquid from the pure waters of the Southern Japanese Alps. This gives it a terrific fresh flavour, many considering it as a uniquely liberating malt whisky. The 25 Year Old single malt is rated the best whisky in the world World Drinks Awards 2020.
The 12 YO from the Hakushu range, with
fresh notes of fruit and malt, along with its burst of peat and smoke and dried
cherry is a treat and affordable ($70)
This fresh, lightly smoky whisky from Suntory's forest distillery--inside a bird sanctuary 2,200 feet (670 meters) up in the southern Japanese Alps -- has notes of green apple and smoky autumn leaves. Barring the peat, the flavours are similar to the Hakushu 18 YO, which gives off light pear, apple, and citrus notes underscored by ribbons of subtle smoke. It has been praised by lovers of gastronomy as an ideal accompaniment for Japanese food.
Hibiki whisky is one of the most popular premium blended ranges to come out of Japan. The bottles are iconic, featuring 24 facets that represent the 24 small seasons of Japan and the hours in a day. The core range previously included the Hibiki 12 Year-Old, which was discontinued in 2015, before the Hibiki Harmony NAS was introduced. While fans were saddened to see it go, the aged 17-, 21-, and 30-Year-Old bottlings remained to keep drinkers happy. The Hibiki 21-Year-Old is by far the most globally renowned expression in the portfolio, having received the award for the "World’s Best Blended Whisky" on five separate occasions, at the World Whiskies Awards. With each award both the price and demand for the Hibiki 21 has risen, making the 17 the last of the current Hibiki aged range that could be bought at a price that wouldn't break the bank.
Expect the price of the Hibiki 17 to rise on the secondary market and bottles to become ever harder to find. A recent feature by the Nikkei Asia Review showcased the huge sales growth Japanese whisky has experienced in the past decade. The focus is on aged expressions which, according to many online retailers and stores in Japan, sell out immediately after being placed on the shelves, both real and virtual.
The whisky first came onto the market in 1984, but it wouldn’t be recognised for its quality, poise and sheer excellence until some years later. Today, it is without a doubt one of the best Japanese whiskies in the world (hence why it’s the second best-seller) and it has become a staple for millions of whisky fans around the globe.
Each year, the Yamazaki distillery releases a new edition of the 12 Year Old and while the label and box can change, the incredible liquid inside remains the same. This whisky has now picked up more awards than one would care to count and that only goes to highlight it’s supreme quality.