Japanese whisky (ジャパニーズ・ウイスキー)
Japanese whisky is the whisky that is produced in Japan. The production of whisky in Japan started in around 1870. But it was in 1924 that the production of whiskey for sale started. It is said that Japanese whisky is closer to Scotch whisky than to Irish whisky.
The English spellings of the Japanese whisky names also follow Scottish style, which omits the letter 'e.'
There are several companies that produce whisky in Japan. Among them, Suntory Holdings Limited (Suntory Liquors Limited since April 1, 2009) and THE NIKKA WHISKY DISTILLING CO., LTD. are especially noticeable. Both companies produce single malts and blended whiskies.
Shinjiro TORII and Masataka TAKETSURU are indispensable when it comes to the history of Japanese whisky. Torii at first worked in a whole sale drug company as an apprentice, and later founded Kotobukiya Limited (later Suntory Liquors Limited). In the beginning, he imported and sold foreign liquors. And later, he succeeded by selling 'Akadama Port Wine,' which he developed based on Portuguese wine. However, Torii was not satisfied with the success of Akadama Port Wine and started a new project that would become his great achievement in his life. The project was to produce whisky for Japanese. Torii decided to build the first whisky distillery in Japan in Yamazaki where SEN no Rikyu built his chashitsu (tea-ceremony room), Shimamoto Town, Osaka Prefecture over strong opposition in the company.
Torii invited Taketsuru as the director of Yamazaki Distillery. Taketsuru had learned the distillation technique in Scotland and came back to Japan in the early 1920's with the knowledge acquired there. While he was working for Kotobukiya Limited, he played an important role in building Yamazaki Distillery. In 1934, Taketsuru resigned from Kotobukiya Limited and founded Dainipponkaju Co., Ltd. (later Nikka Whisky). At that time, Taketsuru built Yoichi Distillery in Yoichi Town, Hokkaido.
About ten distilleries have been built in Japan. The following are major ones, listed by company.
Suntory Liquors Limited
Yamazaki Distillery (Shimamoto Town, Mishima County, Osaka Prefecture)
Hakushu Distillery (Hakushu Town, Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture)
Yoichi Distillery (Yoichi Town, Yoichi County, Hokkaido)
Miyagikyo Distillery (Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture)
Kirin Distillery (Co., Ltd.)
Fuji Gotenba Distillery (Gotenba City, Shizuoka Prefecture)
Karuizawa Whiskey Distillery (Miyotamachi, Kitasaku County, Nagano Prefecture)
Chichibu Distillery (Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture)
The company took over the unblended whisky of Hanyu Distillery, which closed in 2004, to continue whisky production.
(Hanyu City, Saitama Prefecture. TOASHUZO sold the distillery, but the company that bought it withdrew from whisky production.)
Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Shinshu Factory (Miyada Village, Kamiina County, Nagano Prefecture)
Eigashima Shuzo Co., Ltd.
Eigashima Shuzo Whisky Distillery (Akashi City, Hyogo Prefecture)
It was once considered that the whisky that was not produced in Scotland did not meet the standard of traditional Scotch whisky even if the whisky was produced in the style of Scotch whisky. Because of this, Japanese whisky was mostly for Japan's domestic market.
But later, many blind tastings were held by Whisky Magazine. In the tastings, Japanese whiskies were tasted as well as malt whiskies produced in the distilleries regarded as excellent even in Scotland. In the results of the tastings, Japanese single malts (especially ones produced in Yoichi and Yamazaki) received more than once higher evaluation than single malts of Scotch whisky.
Producing Japanese whisky started with duplicating the production method of Scotch whisky. The pioneers of Japanese whisky learned the producing process of Scotch whisky. And they faced many difficulties trying to duplicate the process. Yamazaki, where the first distillery in Japan was built, was chosen for the location because the place was more convenient due to the economic limitation to build it. On the other hand, Yoichi was chosen for the location to build the distillery because the landscape and weather are similar to those of Scotland.
One aspect of the styles of Japanese whisky is that the method of producing blended whisky and features of the whisky industry in Japan are different from those in Scotland. The sales of single malt has been increasing in Japan recently, but much of the sales of whisky in the world is made by blended whisky. In order for blended whisky to be produced, there must be a variety of malts produced in Scotland. Each distillery focuses on only one method to produce whisky. The blenders blend whiskies to make the flavor that each distillery seeks as its product. A blended whisky is owned by a corporation that has one or more distilleries. On the other hand, it is also common that malts are traded among various corporations. In short, the production of blended whisky uses malts produced by many distilleries. But each malt is owned by a different corporation.
In Japan, however, a different style has been introduced. The whisky producers in Japan possess both distilleries and brands of blended whisky. Because of this, it is rare for malts to be traded among the producers. Therefore, Japanese blended whiskies are often made with only malt whiskies produced in more than one distilleries of the same whisky producing company. Some producers import and blend malts produced by distilleries in Scotland with Japanese malts.
This means that blenders in Japan have quite limited choices to produce their own products. It was considered that such circumstances were the barriers for Japanese blended whiskies to succeed, especially in overseas market.
Because of this, each distillery in Japan has been recently diversified gradually. To be more specific, in Japan, whisky producers make a wide variety of malts in one distillery. Such malts range from the one like Islay malt that has a smoky and strong flavor of peat to the one like Strathpay (Scotland) malt that has a light and delicate flavor.
With such diversification and ingenuity of distilleries in Japan, Japanese whiskies have come to be given high evaluation in the world. Also in Japan, whisky is drunk in unique ways. People drink whisky over meal or dilute it with hot or cold water.