A brief, biased and lopsided introduction to the magic, mystique and often outright terrible lies surrounding Japanese Whisky.
What is Japanese Whisky?
Firstly its helpful to understand what constitutes a whisky.
Whisky is an aged spirit (the best one if you exclude rum :P ) made from cereal grains. A spirit is a high proof alcoholic distillate – basically a boiled then condensed ferment of some form of sugar that is purified and concentrated through repeated boiling and selective removal of dangerous and bad tasting compounds. Whisky is all of the above but the sugars have been extracted from cereal grains (this includes things but is not strictly limited to barley, rye, corn/maize and wheat).
Generally speaking the most prized and coveted whiskies are made from malted barley.
Fermentation as mentioned above is the process where yeast is used to break down complex sugars into alcohol (with the help of water and the right environment) and carbon dioxide (there’s a lot going on in this stage, but this is the bit we are interested in).
The resulting water suspension containing most of the ‘goodness’ extracted from the fermented grain is then basically boiled and condensed multiple times (the method and the number of times the ferment is boiled, or distilled, varies based on the desired outcome).
While the vapours from the boiling liquid are being condensed they can be collected and stored in different tanks based on the concentration of certain compounds coming through at any given moment.
The dangerous bits (like methanol) and the stuff you don’t want to taste is removed at this time and either recycled, repurposed or discarded.
The good stuff, known as the heart of the spirit (which is in large part ethanol) is then mixed with water to a predetermined ratio and then put in a barrel to age for two to three years at a minimum to become whisky.
Depending on where in the world this is going on determines the minimum legal ageing period.
Japanese Whisky then is simply whisky as above, from Japan. Kind of. Well in most cases. Sort of….
Unlike Scotch whisky and American whiskey the actual laws that determine what makes a whisky Japanese are rather nebulous. To make matters worse, something that can be legally called Japanese whisky in some parts of the world, can’t in others.
For example, domestically in Japan, whisky can be as little as 10% whisky (as we know it) blended with any other neutral spirit. Barley or rice shochu, which has been aged in oak can be labelled whisky in the US (but not in Japan itself). Whisky exported from Japan and sold as Japanese whisky can contain as little as 0% (ZERO!) Japanese spirit. These are but three examples of how crazy the situation CAN be.
There are many trains of thought on how this lack of regulation affects the quality and reputation of Japanese whisky domestically and internationally, but this does not seem to have curbed demand in any appreciable way.
Are there many types of Japanese Whisky?
Yes, quite a few. Despite the lack of consistent and well defined laws surrounding provenance and production, Japan originally hewed quite close to the Scots in terms of styles and production of whisky. These more traditional whisky types include;
Single Malt Whisky (the one everybody bangs on about! not the be all and end all of 'good' whisky as some might have you believe). Made from 100% Malted Barley grains and only from a single distillery. This means a single malt can be a combination of different barrels made at different times from the same distillery (as long as it was all made from 100% malted barley).
Single Malts are generally held in higher regard than other types of whisky, which is kind of weird, as they can be amazing but there is no inherent guarantee of quality or superiority magically conferred on single malts. They often attract a premium price sometimes purely because of the perceived superiority.
Grain Whisky - This is whisky made from any other cereal grain/s than malted barley. Typically Corn or Wheat but sometimes Rye or other cereal grains. In Japan corn and maize seem to be the dominant grain whisky ingredients.
Grain Whisky can also be found as a Single Grain whisky which means only one type of grain was used and it was all made at the one distillery but this does not seem to feature heavily in Japanese whisky packaging.
Blended Whisky - the vast majority of whisky bottled, sold and consumed in the world today is blended whisky. This holds true for Japanese whisky as well.
Blended whisky is not a terribly descriptive term on its own. A blended whisky is typically made of whisky from a handful (or more) distilleries and contains a mix of single malt and grain whiskies.
Probably the most famous example of a Japanese blended whisky (outside of Japan) at least is Hibiki. Hibiki is a blend (and as such there is no distillery called Hibiki sadly) created by Suntory from its Yamazaki and Hakushu single malt distilleries along with grain whisky from their Chita grain whisky distillery.
A cheaper and easier to find blend which is relatively new to the Australian market is Nikka from the Barrel which seems to have become more readily available in the last few years.
Blended whiskies are often unfairly derided by more 'advanced' whisky drinkers which is doing them a major disservice. Hibiki consistently wins awards for its balanced and nuanced expressions, showing why blends can be a viable alternative to single malts.
Single Cask Whisky - Whisky from a single barrel. Super rare in Japanese whisky circles and typically from an independent bottler – rarely an official product.
Cask Strength Whisky - most whisky is watered down before it is bottled for sale, usually to 40%-46% ABV. Cask strength whisky is not diluted. Some cask strength whisky has been bottled at over 75% ABV! The final alcohol content of a whisky is dependent on a lot of things but the main factors - how strong was the whisky when it was barrelled (whisky fresh off the still is usually mixed with a little water to bring the ABV to a consistent level - typically in the range of 63% to 69% before its filled into barrels), how long has it been in the barrel (whisky loses alcohol or water over time depending upon...), the humidity and conditions of the warehouse where the barrel was stored (more humid conditions tend to result in more alcohol loss. Drier conditions tend to see more water lost. Water lost = ABV goes up. Alcohol lost = ABV goes down. This loss occurs because barrels are made of oak which although pretty good at keeping things in, is porous, so does 'breathe'. This loss is called the Angels Share. The bit that sticks inside the wood of the barrel even after its been emptied is called the Devil's Cut).
Again, super rare in Japanese whisky and again usually only seen from independent bottlers. We’ll talk about some of the reasons why this might be later. Japanese Whisky is often sought after for its reputation as a delicate drop so cask strength Japanese whisky is not only hard to find but most not front of mind for most Japanese whisky drinkers.
Who makes Japanese Whisky?
The Japanese whisky industry is quite small in terms of output and number of producers (but growing) when compared with American or Scotch Whisky.
The ‘big name’ Japanese distilleries are pretty much owned by two large multi-national companies, Asahi and Beam-Suntory.
Beam Suntory own and operate the Hakushu, Yamazaki and Chita distilleries which produce labels like Toki, Hibiki, Kakubin, Chita, Yamazaki and Hakushu – not to mention other brands in Scotland and the US such as Jim Beam, Laphroaig, Bowmore etc.
On the Asahi side we have the Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries which are responsible for various labels including Nikka from the Barrel, Nikka Coffey Grain, Nikka Coffey Malt, Taketsuru, Yoichi and Miyagikyo and Ben Nevis in Scotland.
Some other distilleries which are independently owned or less well known are the Chichibu distillery (Founded by Ichiro Akuto in 2008 – the first new whisky distillery since 1973 in Japan apparently), Fuji Gotemba, Mars Shinshu and Eigashima Distillery to name a few.
Where is it made?
Whisky distilleries in Japan are fairly spread out and can be found across most of the larger islands with the greatest concentration on the largest island, Honshu.
There aren’t a large number but you can see how they vary geographically and topographically via this handy Google Map
The earlier distilleries like Yamazaki, Hakushu and Yoichi were supposedly sited based on similarities to conditions in Scotland.
How did they start making Japanese Whisky?
The story of how whisky came to Japan – at least in its modern, commercial form is a complex one, but much of it can be attributed two men. Shinjiro Torii was a pharmaceutical wholesaler and the founder of Kotobukiya (which would later became the Suntory company). The initial foray into liquor was the importing of various liquors from the west, and the establishment of a successful wine brand.
Not satisfied with importing he turned his attention to establishing making whisky domestically for domestic palates. He hired Masataka Taketsureu who studied whisky making in Scotland (at Longmorn, Bo’ness and Hazelburn) and was instrumental in the construction of Yamazaki Distillery which was the first commercial distillery officially producing Japanese Whisky.
Some years later, in 1934, Masataka would leave Kotobukiya to establish his own company which would eventually become Nikka, and the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido. The early distilleries and efforts looked to emulate and refine the methods and style favoured in Scotland with some peated whiskies even being produced at Yoichi and Hakushu.
The most popular way to consume whisky in Japan is in cocktails, most notably ‘Highballs’ which are a dash of whisky with soda water – sometimes with a splash of something else to spice it up. This is an extremely refreshing way to drink whisky and comes thoroughly recommended for hot Australian summer afternoons and evenings 😊
Japanese whisky has had its up and downs like all whisky producing countries but in recent years demand has far outstripped supply, particularly for more limited/premium expressions especially those with an age statement.
Prices and availability for Yamazaki 12 and 18, Hibiki 12, 17 and 21 and Hakushu 12 and 18 locally here in Australia have risen and declined respectively in dramatic fashion in the last five years i.e. prices have increased and availability has diminished. This appears to be mainly caused by a relative amount of scarcity of aged stock vs demand, perceived superiority (real or imagined) and the ‘pile-on’ effect.
Japanese Whisky, which was not as sought after historically, meant relatively small volumes were set aside for long term maturation. Low and stable levels of demand kept prices relatively stable. Japanese whisky suffered a slump in demand in the 1980s and 1990s like much of the Scotch industry, so production volumes were kept low.
A sudden and continuing upsurge in domestic and international demand in the last decade, due to various factors has resulted in a lot of Age Statement Japanese whiskies being discontinued entirely and seen sharp price increases for those that remain.
Demand and the fervour for Japanese whisky does not appear to be abating anytime soon. The continuous accolades Japanese whisky draw at international whisky competitions, the investors and speculators, mixed with people who want to be seen drinking the ‘coolest/best’ whisky or just love the delicate profile found in mainstream Japanese single malts all compete for the same small pool of whisky, keeping the pressure on supply and prices high.
Is It All That?
We haven’t tried every Japanese whisky – far from it.
Do we get why people flock to it? Sure.
Yamazaki 12 was one of this writers first exposures to single malts and the delicate, multi layered, beautifully rounded profile still makes us happy today (although we have moved to favouring the Hakushu 12 now).
The price which was ~$80 AUD a bottle back when we first tried it, now sits closer to $300 which does not make us happy.
Is it worth it still? That’s not something we can decide for you, but $300 represents a LOT of opportunities in the wonderful world of whisky.
There are newer non age statement versions of pretty much all the older bottlings like Hakushu Distillers Reserve or Yoichi which replace their age statement older siblings but even these are not ‘cheap’ by any means. All we can suggest is you make friends with someone who has some open, or go to a tasting or a bar and decide for yourself – and invite us!
"category: whisky" "country: Japan" "sort by rating descending" "over 10 reviews"
"category: whisky" "country: Japan" "sort by reviews descending" "over 20 reviews"