A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Whisky

Influenced by Scotland, Refined in Japan

Suntory Hibiki 12 Year Old Japanese Whisky

Beam Suntory

From a smokiness akin to scotch to super-smooth blends, Japanese whisky has made its mark on the world of brown spirits. It may not have the multi-century history of other styles, but it has been around longer than most drinkers realize and there are some impressive bottles to explore. If you enjoy a refined sipper and top-shelf whisky cocktails, it's worth your time to discover what Japan has to offer.

The History of Japanese Whisky

Japan's whisky story begins in the early 20th century. Two men are primarily responsible for the country's adoption of the dark distilled spirit. In 1918, Masataka Taketsuru left Japan for Scotland. There, he apprenticed at Scotch whisky distilleries, learning the finer points of distillation from masters in the trade.

Upon his return to his homeland in 1923, Taketsuru joined forces with Shinjiro Torii to open a whiskey distillery. Using Torii's ingenuity and refined palate along with Taketsuru's newfound knowledge, the Yamazaki Distillery was opened outside of Kyoto and the first commercial whiskies were produced in Japan. This set the foundation for The House of Suntory.

After his contract was up, Taketsuru struck out on his own. He thought that the Japanese northern island of Hokkaido was better suited to mimic Scotland's climate. Torri resisted the idea, preferring Yamazaki's closeness to major markets. In 1934, Taketsuru opened the Yoichi Distillery on Hokkaido and formed Nikka Whisky.

Today, Nikka and Suntory dominate Japanese whisky, forming nearly 90 percent of the market. Suntory opened the Chita Distillery in 1972, specializing in grain whisky, and the Hakushu Distillery in 1973, taking advantage of the Japanese Southern Alps' climate for a different take on single malts. Nikka also expanded, opening the Miyagikyo Distillery in 1969, adding mountainous whiskies to complement its seaside Yoichi whiskies.

However, Suntory was not the first licensed distillery in the country. That honor goes to White Oak Distillery in Akashi. Though they focused on sake and shochu for much of the century, they received a whisky license in 1919. Whisky production was limited primarily to in-house experiments until 1984; to this day, the stills are only fired up for a couple of months each year.

Over the years, a few other distilleries started up in Japan:

  • Karuizawa opened in 1955 near the volcano, Mount Asama. It closed in 2001 and the bottles that remain are very sought after, often priced over $1,000.
  • Fuji Gotemba Distillery, located at the foot of Mount Fuji, launched its whisky in 1973. They offer both single malts and blended whisky, also under the Fuji Sankoru label.
  • Chichibu is the newcomer, opening in 2004 outside Tokyo. It has a focus on small-batches using hand-crafted techniques.

How Japanese Whiskey Is Made

Honoring its influence, Japanese whisky often employs techniques used in making Scotch whisky — including a spelling without an "e." Unlike other whiskies, there are no legal requirements other than the fact that it is made in Japan.

Malted barley — often peated and imported from Scotland — and other grains are used to make Japanese whisky. These are either distilled twice in pot stills or, for grain whiskies designated for blends, run through continuous column stills.

The barrels used for aging include ex-bourbon American oak and used sherry casks. Japanese oak (mizunara) is used as well, imparting a sandalwood incense-like flavor to the whiskey. And, Suntory has been known to use umeshu (plum wine) casks.

The major distinction between Japanese whisky and scotch is that, in Japan, each company is self-reliant. Where Scotland's distilleries often exchange whisky to create blends, Suntory, Nikka, and the other distilleries do not. This means that each must be masters at every single whisky used for their expressions. The need for internal diversification is why so many types of stills, barrels, and methods are employed. It also explains why the two big producers have strategically scattered their distilleries in diversified climates.

The Japanese Whisky "Style"

The lone-wolf mastery required makes Japanese whisky unique and surprisingly diverse. It's more about refined taste — prized in Japanese culture — than a specific flavor profile or "style" point.

While bold, peaty single malts likened to the typical scotch get a lot of attention, the blended whiskies showcase a mastery of the art of blending. This has cultural influence as well. In Japan, whiskey is most often paired with food; refined, light, mellow whisky with an earthy undertone is a spectacular fit with Japanese cuisine.

Drinking Japanese Whisky

You will notice that the majority of Japanese whisky comes with a premium price. That might lead you to enjoy it straight, over ice, or with a splash of water, but don't exclude it from cocktails.

In Japan, the simple whisky highball is a showstopping hit. It's often treated with ritualistic attention in bars: From hand-cut ice allowed to melt slowly in the glass before pouring the whisky, to an ultra-slow pour of soda. The drink is partially responsible for the Japanese whisky revival in the early 2000s.

You can also enjoy it in any whisky cocktail, from Scotch favorites like the rusty nail for the smokier malts to well-balanced drinks like the Scotch sour for the blends. Yamazaki's 12 Year Old Single Malt is fabulous in an autumn delight cocktail; Nikka's From the Barrel has a smoothness you'll enjoy in the Rob Roy.

Finding Japanese Whisky

An increase in global demand is extending the availability of Japanese whisky. You should be able to find bottles of Suntory's Yamazaki, Hibiki, Hakushu, and Toki expressions at well-stocked liquor stores. Likewise, good whiskey shops will likely provide some of Nikka's: the Yoichi and Miyagikyo Single Malts, From the Barrel, and the Coffee Grain and Malt Whisky expressions.

Whiskeys from the other distilleries and more exclusive bottles are challenging, particularly in the U.S. High-end liquor stores may stock them and you can try online whiskey stores like The Whisky Exchange and Masters of Malt. However, international shipping regulations change from time to time, so this is not always an option.