March 2018

Japanese Whisky

Bottles of Japanese Whisky
Bottles of Japanese Whisky
Public Domain Image

Japanese whisky has made it onto the world stage and is here to stay. Among Japanese whisky makers, Suntory is perhaps the most famous, and also the oldest. Suntory’s famous Yamazaki distillery, located on the outskirts of Kyoto, dates back to 1923, when Shinjiro Torii started building the distillery in order to create a Whisky specifically for the Japanese palate. Mr. Torii worked with Taketsuru Masataka, who had studied whisky making in Scotland, to create the first domestically produced Japanese whisky in 1929, before Mr. Masataka left to found his own company. In the 95 years that have passed since 1923, the companies these men founded, namely Kotobukiya (now Suntory) and Nikka Whisky, have gone on to not only create whisky for Japan, but whisky that can appeal to connoisseurs all around the world. Moreover, Suntory’s and Nikka Whisky’s acclaimed whiskies have in recent years consistently garnered some of the highest accolades in international competitions like the International Spirits Challenge and World Whiskies Awards.

The first account of whisky being brought to Japan was as a part of the gifts presented to Japanese delegations by Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1854. It would be another 70 years before the first distillery begins producing whisky in Japan. At first Japanese distilleries were simply trying to catch up with their overseas counterparts; however Japan’s whisky has garnered so much attention that some distilleries are now attempting to emulate Japanese whisky. One such attempt is to try and recreate Japan’s signature taste by aging whisky in mizunara oak barrels. Mizunara oak came into use after WWII, when imported oak was almost impossible to come by, but it presented a number of problems that have only recently been overcome. Now some of the most famous Japanese whiskies are least partially aged in barrels made of native mizunara oak, which when aged for a long period imparts a number of qualities that contribute to the luxury status that whisky aged in these barrels now enjoys.

It is difficult to say exactly what makes Japanese whisky different, but there are a number of factors that contribute to its uniqueness. The most obvious element that differentiates Japanese whisky is of course the fact that it was made in Japan, which is only important in that there originally was neither any existing infrastructure nor a defined drinking culture for whisky in Japan. This meant that everything had to be created from scratch, which in turn has led to a culture of experimentation and creativity that lives on to this day. Japan’s much extolled four seasons and delicious and clean water also play important roles in creating the round and smooth profile that Japanese whisky has become known for.

If you are interested in learning more about Japanese whisky, the Japan Society will be holding a talk about “The Way of Whisky” on Thursday, April 19 at 6:30 PM.

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Japan Info is a publication of the Consulate General of Japan in New York; however, the opinions and materials contained herein do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the Government of Japan.