Beginner's guide to Japanese Whisky
Chris Bunting is an English journalist living in Tokyo. He is the author of "Drinking Japan", the first comprehensive guide in English to the history and culture of Japanese alcohol, with detailed coverage not only of the well-known rice brew sake but of much less explored traditions like shochu, awamori, beer, wine, and Japanese whisky, as well as reviews of 122 of Japan's top drinking establishments. He edits the Japanese whisky blog www.nonjatta.com
In Ian Fleming's novel You Only Live Twice, Bond's Australian ally Dikko Henderson complains of a foul hangover from drinking Japanese whisky. James Bond, not known for adventurousness when it comes to alcohol (“shaken, not stirred”), thinks Dikko has only himself to blame: "I can't believe Japanese whisky makes a good foundation for anything."
Dikko responds: "You've got something there sport. I've got myself a proper ‘futsukayoi’ - honourable hangover. Mouth like a vulture's crutch. Soon as we got home from that lousy cat house, I had to go for the big spit. But you're wrong about Suntory. It's a good enough brew. ”
Suntory is Japan’s largest whisky maker and seems to have a way of pushing itself into the limelight whenever the world’s attention turns to Japanese distilling. But Japanese Whisky does not stop at Suntory. The company has been battling it out with its main rival, Nikka, owner of the renowned Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries, since before the war. Another large company, Kirin, owns the Fuji Gotemba distillery, and a growing craft whisky industry is challenging the big guys. Much of the whisky produced by this industry is a good deal better than “good enough”. It is quite superb.
It traces its history to an epic journey by the young chemist Masataka Taketsuru to learn Scotland's whisky distilling secrets right after World War I
The acceptance of Japan as one of the world’s top whisky-making regions can be dated to 2001. In that year, a 10-year-old Yoichi whisky from Nikka Whisky won the "Best of the Best" award in an international tasting organized by Whisky Magazine. The victory prompted shocked headlines, but Japanese makers have since made a habit of bagging the silverware at the world’s main whisky awards. In 2003, a Yamazaki 12 produced by Suntory captured a gold award at the International Spirits Challenge.
The next year, the Hibiki 30 won the overall trophy at the same competition and, in 2005, Yamazaki 18 won a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. In April 2008, at the World Whisky awards in Glasgow, a Yoichi 1987 from Nikka Whisky won the top single malt prize and a 30-year-old Hibiki blend from Suntory won the best blended whisky in the world. To list all the achievements of Japanese whisky makers in these competitions would require a longer article than this, but it is sufficient to say that a major prize that does not include a Japanese maker among its major prizes has become the exception rather than the rule.
The Japanese spirit is spelled in the Scottish way--"whisky" not "whiskey"--and, in general, belongs to the Scottish tradition of whisky making. It traces its history to an epic journey by the young chemist Masataka Taketsuru to learn Scotland's whisky distilling secrets right after World War I. After first taking courses at colleges in Glasgow, to try to improve his English and give himself a grounding in the theory of distilling, he worked at the Longmorn Distillery in Speyside, the Bo'ness distillery in West Lothian, and the Hazelburn Distillery at Campbeltown. His voluminous notes were to become the bible of Japanese whisky distilling following his return to Japan.
Taketsuru and the visionary businessman Shinjiro Torii, the founder of the empire that would become Suntory, set up Japan's first proper whisky distillery at Yamazaki, near Kyoto, in 1924. Yamazaki's first whisky hit the shelves in 1929 under the brand name Shirofuda (“White Label”) and is still sold today. Ten years later, Taketsuru set up his own business, which was to become Suntory's rival Nikka Whisky. Nikka and Suntory still tower over the industry but there are currently nine active single malt whisky distilleries in Japan.
Active Japanese distilleries
Yamazaki lies at the confluence of the Katsura, Kizu and Uji rivers, nestled up against forested hills rising out of the Kansai plain. Its malts show a tendency towards a delicate fruitiness, often with sweet spice, incense, vanilla and coconut tastes and aromas.
Yamazaki's spirits, as well as those from Hakushu, are used in Suntory's excellent Hibiki blended whisky (best known in the west for its starring role in Sophia Coppola's film Lost in Translation).
Owner: Suntory whisky
Perched in the Southern Japanese Alps, Hakushu is, at over 2,200 feet above sea level, one of the loftiest malt whisky distilleries in the world. It takes its water from beneath Kai-Komagatake ("Pony Mountain").
Opened by Suntory in 1973 to help meet Japan's huge thirst for whisky, its 12 stills are known for making single malts with a clean, playful taste, with sweet fruity flavours often balanced by well controlled peppery or aniseed tastes.
Owner: Suntory whisky
Yoichi is Japan's second oldest distillery and is owned by Suntory's great rival Nikka whisky. It was built by the founder of Japanese' whisky Taketsuru when he split from Suntory in 1934. High up on the North coast of Japan's northern Island of Hokkaido, it spends much of the year deep in snow.
Yoichi still uses old coal-fired pot stills, a method which Taketsuru learned in Scotland but which has now died out in that country. Its product tends to have a slightly more "masculine" profile than the other Japanese distillerys. Rich stewed fruit, nutty and coffee notes often balance the assertiveness.
Owner: Nikka whisky
Nikka whisky's second distilery at Miyagikyo opened in 1969. Taketsuru chose the site while touring the area and was immediately struck by the location, sandwiched between the Hirosegawa and Nikkawagawa rivers and surrounded by mountains.
Miyagikyo's whisky is typically softer and milder than its sister distillery at Yoichi.
Owner: Nikka whisky
At more than 2,000 feet above sea level, Fuji Gotemba's elevation means it is cooler than the great Kanto plain stretching to its East. Down in the flatlands, it is hot and humid in summer but the distillery's temperatures are only a few degrees higher than the Scottish distilleries on average.
Fuji Gotemba takes its water from rain and melted snow running off Mount Fuji itself. Its single malts are relatively light and elegantly balanced.
Owner: Kirin Whisky
Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture is one of the most exciting developments in Japanese whisky for years. It was only set up in 2008, so the vast majority of its spirit is still ageing, but Ichiro Akuto, the man behind this tiny independent craft distillery, knows his whisky inside out. We know this because he already sells some superb whisky from the now closed Hanyu distillery under the "Ichiro's Malt" brand. Japanese whisky fans are waiting with bated breath for what will come out of Chichibu.
Owner: Ichiro's Malt/Venture Whisky
White Oak is a small independent distillery by the sea in Hyogo prefecture owned by Eigashima Shuzo, a sake and szochu maker. For a long time, they produced only cheap blends but in 2007 they quietly released their first single malt whisky. It had a very mild and rounded flavour. President Mikio Hiraishi says he intends to switch much of their production to premium single malt whisky in future. Watch this space.
Owner: Eigashima Shuzo
Hombo Shuzo’s Shinshu distillery in Nagano prefecture was one of the ghosts of Japanese whisky distilling until this year. It had not produced any whisky since 1992 and its stocks of maturing whisky were dwindling. Then, in July last year, we got some startling and wonderful news from Makoto Kawaida at Hombo's headquarters. Hombo had decided invest in a complete overhaul of its whisky equipment - a full lauter mash tun, five cast iron washbacks and a pair of stills - and planned to start distillation again in 2011.
Shinshu’s stills have an important place in Japanese whisky history. According to Ulf Buxrud’s “Japanese Whisky: Facts, Figures and Taste,” they were designed by Kiichiro Iwai, who was one of the men who decided to send Nikka Whisky founder Masataka Taketsuru on his historic journey to Scotland in 1918 and received Taketsuru’s detailed report on whisky making on his return. It is good to have them back. While we wait for their nearly distilled spirits to mature, Hombo still sell whisky from their old operation under the “Mars” and “Komagatake” brands.
You will find a number of products from closed or currently inactive distilleries in alcohol shops in Japan. By far the best known is Karuizawa, owned by Kirin whisky, which is not in regular production at present but which produced an exciting variety of whiskies, ranging from the very restrained to some rambunctious peaty drams. Other distilleries to look out for are Hanyu distillery, whose excellent products are still being sold under the "Ichiro's Malt" brand and Toa Shuzo's Golden Horse brand (www.toashuzo.com).
Five essential Japanese whiskies
Tasting note: Hakushu 12-year-old
A restrained nose carries grapes, caramel and a floral flourish. Light and playful on the palate: dried apricot developing a well-controlled pepperiness. A slight medicinal note emerges at the finish.
Tasting note: Ichiro’s Malt 8 of Hearts 1991
A fudgy cheesy nose promises a rich sweet taste but the 8 of Hearts is actually more austere than many Ichiro’s Malt bottlings. Dry chewing stick and ginger tastes develop into a bitter sweetness at the finish.
Tasting note: Miyagikyo 10-year-old
Has a restrained smell with notes of butter and vanilla. In the mouth it starts out mild and sweet but becomes more expansive, with oak, dark chocolate and tobacco gestures.
Tasting note: Yoichi 12-year-old
Plump dried apricots on the nose. Sweet and mild on first tasting but then becomes more assertive and complex, with earthy themes developing. Yoichi has a reputation for providing some of the more“masculine” of Japanese malts. This is a good example.
Cereal and rich jammy, port-soaked smells. In the mouth: jam, red wine, vanilla and treacle on top of woods and tannins. The finish is drying.
Still want more?
Check out Chris Bunting's new book Drinking Japan for in-depth overviews of six of the most beloved drinks in Japan: sake, shochu, awamori, beer, whisky, and wine.