Incredible craftsmanship turns into even more incredible liquid.
Japanese whisky is renowned for its rich history, exceptional craftsmanship, and unique flavours. Its whisky-making abilities have garnered global recognition, with several distilleries producing top-quality spirits. In this article, we will explore the best Japanese whiskey brands, delving into their rich history and distinctive flavours from the Land of the Rising Sun.
The History of Japanese Whisky:
In 1918, a young Japanese man with a sincere ambition to craft authentic whisky, travelled alone to Scotland to learn all thesecrets of its production. Little did he know that he would eventually become the father of Japanese whisky. His name is Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whisky.
Masataka had an incredible opportunity to travel to Scotland to master the art of whisky making. He enrolled at the University of Glasgow and took chemistry courses. He then apprenticed at three different Scotch whisky distilleries to gain practical training and learn from experienced craftsmen. During this time, he filled two notebooks with every detail he learned, which later became Japan’s first-ever guide to whisky production. By blending traditional Scottish methods with Japan’s passion and craftsmanship, Masataka created a
diverse range of exquisite whisky expressions.
The Yamazaki Distillery is Japan’s oldest distillery. It is hidden away near Kyoto and was founded by Shinjiro Torii in 1923. It is renowned for its clear and mineral-rich water source as well as its diverse ageing techniques. The result is a broad spectrum of flavours, ranging from rich, complex profiles to delicate floral notes.
Moving further afield near Mount Kaikomagatake is the Hakushu Distillery. It is known for its crisp, refreshing whiskies as well as experimenting with the use of peat and aging barrels, which contributes to the distinctive smoky and forest-like aromas.
This distillery is owned by Nikka and is situated in Hokkaido. It is known for its assertive and bold whiskies.
Also owned by Nikka, Miyagikyo crafts more delicate and elegant whiskies, which showcases the versatility of Japanese whisky-making.
Founded in 2008 by Ichiro Akuto, the Chichibu Distillery is considered a rising star in the whisky industry and has quickly gained acclaim for its innovation and attention to detail. Despite being such a young distillery, Chichibu whiskies have an incredible amount of complexity and depth, often characterised by vibrant fruitiness and spiciness.
Distillery Significance and Regional Influence:
Suntory and Nikka are the two major players in the Japanese whisky industry. Suntory, with the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, has a wide range of expressions, each showcasing different attributes of Japanese whisky. Nikka, with Yoichi and Miyagikyo, brings diversity by harnessing the distinct regional characteristics of Hokkaido and Miyagi. The different regions in Japan offer eccentric environmental elements that influence whisky flavours. Hokkaido’s cold climate impacts the ageing process differently than the warmer climate of Honshu, which in turn contributes to diverse flavour profiles across distilleries.
Crafting Japanese Whisky:
The techniques used by the Japanese for their whisky are heavily influenced by the Scottish but with a twist or an innovation. One example is the use of Mizunara Oak casks – These casks are unique and only available in Japan, they contain distinct flavours of sandalwood and spices, which highly contribute to the complexity of Japanese whiskies. The climate also affects the whisky maturation. Japan has a diverse climate which varies in temperatures and humidity, this accelerates the whisky maturation period which leads to a faster interaction between the spirit and the cask, resulting in a well-aged whisky in a shorter time. The master blenders are also a huge reason behind the rise of Japanese whisky. They use incredible techniques, often combining the different cask types and ages to achieve their desired flavour, this shows their skill and artistry in whisky making.
Water source – Water plays an important role in Japanese whisky production. The distilleries have located themselves near pristine water sources, they consider the water an extra flavour and use it to add characteristics to the spirits. The purity and mineral content can greatly affect the whisky’s final taste profile.
Mashing and Fermentation – This process in Japanese whisky making involves finely ground malted barley mixed with water to create a mash. The yeast is then introduced for fermentation, which converts the sugars into alcohol. The duration and temperature of the fermentation can contribute to the whisky’s flavour and complexity.
Distillation – The distillation process of Japanese whisky distillation often involves both pot and column stills. Distillers will use a combination of techniques to achieve the desired flavours. Pot stills tend to create a more robust and flavourful spirit, while column stills produce lighter and smoother whiskies.
Maturation and casks – The maturation process takes place in oak barrels, where the whisky is influenced by the wood, extracting the flavours and characteristics surrounding it. Japanese distillers are well known for their experimentation with a variety of different cask types, including American oak, sherry casks, and of course Mizunara oak, each providing a unique element to the final product.
Here are some must-try Japanese whiskies!
Nikka Days – Crafted with precision and finesse, Nikka Days is all about smoothness. A creation from the highly celebrated Nikka distilleries, it is a testament to the artistry and versatility of Japanese whisky. This expression offers a smooth and accessible profile that is suitable for seasoned whisky aficionados as well as newcomers. With its gentle fruity notes, hints of vanilla and a hint of spice, Nikka Days is an enjoyable whisky either as a casual drink or as a versatile base for cocktails.
Yamazaki 12-Year-Old – first came onto the market in 1984 and was the first seriously marketed Japanese single malt whisky with a wide range of Japanese whiskies existing to date. It is renowned for its smoothness and complexity, which provides you with a delightful fusion of sweet and spicy flavours. The palate unleashes a beautiful blend of honey, oak, and a subtle smokiness. Each sip speaks volumes about the artistry and dedication to quality that the Yamazaki is known for. They have recently released the 100th Anniversary edition which celebrates Japan’s oldest single malt distillery.
Hibiki Harmony – This captures Japan’s blending mastery in a bottle. Created by Suntory’s expert blenders, this expression is an effortless blend of malt and grain whiskies, resulting in balance and harmony. The aroma consists of beautiful floral notes with orange peel and a hint of Mizunara oak. Once you have one sip of this tasty whisky you can see why it is called harmony. The flavours unfold giving you hints of honey, spices and rich dried fruit, giving you a lingering satisfying finish. Then the incredible blend epitomises the art of balance and flavour, delighting connoisseurs in the process. Suntory has also released a 100th-anniversary edition of the Hibiki Harmony. The relentless pursuit of quality, ingenuity and expressiveness inspires it.
Nikka Miyagikyo No Age Statement – This is a dedication to Nikka’s commitment to crafting incredible spirits that last the test of time. Hailing from the Miyagikyo distillery, which is hidden away in the beautiful landscapes of Japan, this no-age statement is full of elegance and depth. On the nose, you will find a delicate essence of orchard fruits as well as hints of sweet toffee. The palate will find juicy pears, soft spices and a touch of malt, creating a sympathy in your mouth. The absence of an age statement doesn’t destroy its allure but enhances the mystery, showcasing the artistry of Nikka’s blending expertise.
Nikka Yoichi NAS – This truly captures the spirit of Hokkaido, which is where the Yoichi distillery sits nestled amidst the rugged landscape. Despite having no age statement, this whisky carries an incredible complexity that displays the craftsmanship of Nikka’s distillation and maturation techniques. The aromas of peat smoke, dried fruit and a subtle sea salt take over your nose. The palate experiences layers of rich oak, a touch of vanilla sweetness, and a robust smokiness, giving it an exhilarating and robust flavour profile. It finishes with a lovely warmth that leaves behind a long-lasting impression.
The global recognition of Japanese whisky: Japanese whiskies have gained a lot of awards on the global stage, cementing their reputation for excellence and craftsmanship. Many releases from both Suntory and Nikka have won countless awards at the World Whisky Awards across many years. Due to the positive reaction to Japanese whisky, the demand continues to grow and the distilleries face challenges in meeting the increased demand while maintaining the quality and authenticity that define their spirits.
The Legacy of Japanese Whisky:
Japanese whiskey’s rise to prominence as a testament to the country’s dedication to craftsmanship, innovation, and respect for tradition. As its legacy continues to grow, the incredible spirits will almost certainly captivate whisky enthusiasts worldwide for generations to come. It wouldn’t be surprising if Japanese whisky became the most expensive whisky in the world due to its rich heritage. With their continued commitment to quality and diverse flavour profiles, Japanese whisky stands as a testament to the artistry and dedication of its makers, who continue making innovations that offer a new world full of flavour, which is waiting to be explored and savoured.
Check out some fabulous higher end bottles that includes a Yoichi 2019 here!
Author: Oliver has worked at a whisky and cigar shop for over four years. When he first started, he didn’t enjoy whisky at all. However, he has since learned how to sample a dram to taste its full potential and has never looked back. He has dedicated many hours a day to learning more about whisky and is now sharing his findings with you. His favourite whisky is the Tomatin 14-Year-Old Port Cask.