Japanese Whiskey - History, Regions & Production Techniques

A Complete Guide to Japanese Whiskey

To venture into the world of whiskey is to venture into the world. From the Scottish Highlands to the rural American South, places across the globe find their legacies and cultures forever enmeshed with their (often regionally specific) distilling methods and practices. There is perhaps no place where the international reach of fine whiskey is more evident than in Japan. 

Though little is known about its origin, Japanese whiskey — more commonly referred to as “whisky” within the region — has existed since at least the 1850s, when it would be produced on the side by sochu and sake breweries as an alternative to their already popular products. The real origins of Japanese whiskey, however, can be traced to the opening of Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery, where the founder’s burgeoning interest in producing the spirit and a young apprentice’s knowledge merged to create the drink just as it is most commonly enjoyed today.

Japanese Whiskey History

The story of Japanese whiskey begins with two men, Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii, and their shared passion for distilling high-quality spirits. While working a job as a pharmaceutical wholesaler, Torii founded Kotobukiya, which would later become the still-beloved Japanese whiskey manufacturer Suntory. Through his new company, Torii would import Western liquor, and soon he found incredible success selling an interpretation of a Portuguese-style wine he called Akadama Port Wine. Emboldened by his success, but not content with the product that spawned it, he furthered his ambitions by pursuing his next goal, and what would ultimately become his life’s work—making whiskey in Japan with distinctly Japanese palates in mind.

Taketsuru, known as the “Father of Japanese Whisky,” was born to a family that owned a sake brewery. Feeding his curiosity about the family trade, he studied organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in order to better understand the fermentation and distillation processes. He also apprenticed at several distilleries while in Scotland, including the Longmorn distillery in Strathspey and the James Calder & Co.'s Bo'ness distillery in the Lowlands region. This all happened in 1919, and 1920 would prove to be no less eventful. The following year he married a Scottish woman — Jessie Roberta "Rita" Cowan — against both his and her families’ wishes, and he proceeded with one more apprenticeship at the Hazelburn distillery before moving back to Japan with his new bride at the close of the year.

The two fathers of Japanese whiskey would unite upon Taketsuru’s return. After building a distillery in the Yamazaki suburb of Kyoto — a place known for its high-quality water, something that remains essential to anything made in Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery —  Torii needed someone with experience to manage it. With two whirlwind years of apprenticing under his belt, Taketsuru fit the bill perfectly. The first Japanese whiskey released by Suntory during this time was the Suntory Shirofuda, or “white label,” which was unsuccessful. The second, however, was the immensely popular Suntory Kakubin, which to this day is still Japan’s best-selling whiskey. Taketsuru worked for Kotobukiya until 1934, when he set off to start his own distilling company, Dainipponkaju — which would later become Nikka Whisky Distilling. He would establish Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido, the oldest distillery still owned by Nikka, in 1940.

In the next few decades, the drink would become increasingly commonplace in Japanese life. In 1955, Suntory opened whiskey bars around the country to build awareness for this relatively new regional spirit. In 1970, the company created the “Mizuwari,” an easy-drinking combination of water and whiskey that became a common accompaniment for Japanese meals.

In spite of its rich history, Japanese whiskey has only achieved worldwide popularity in the past two decades. Some believe that Bill Murray — or, rather, the Suntory-pitching actor he plays in the acclaimed 2003 film, Lost in Translation — is at least somewhat responsible for the sudden boom in awareness, and that that exposure was broadened by more and more whiskey enthusiasts and critics alike going out of their way to try and taste the spirit themselves. This trend no doubt led to Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 Year Old winning the Gold Award at the 2003 International Spirits Challenge in the United Kingdom or, more recently, Suntory’s Yamazaki 2013 Sherry Cask being named the 2015 “Best Whisky in the World” by the Whisky Bible.

These accolades have seen a dramatic rise in global demand for Japanese whiskey, and in turn, a Japanese whiskey shortage is set to last until sometime in the middle of the next decade. That said, this news shouldn’t worry those looking to get a taste — anyone getting thirsty reading this should still be able to find some of the more popular and mass-produced whiskeys on the market.

Production Techniques for Japanese Whiskey

When Masataka Taketsuru came back from Scotland to kickstart the first wave of Japanese whiskey production, he brought many of that region’s methods, ingredients and even the spelling for “whisky,”  along with him. Like Scottish whiskey, Japanese whiskey is distilled twice using a pot still, a contraption that is usually made of copper that consists of a pot, a swan neck, a lyne arm and a condenser. During the distillation process, a mixture of water and alcohol made from malted grains like barley or mash is heated in the pot. 

Because the boiling point for alcohol is lower than that of water, a highly concentrated vapor rises to the swan neck at the top of the pot, then through the lyne arm until it is ultimately deposited in the condenser. Here the vapor is cooled to yield a distillate that is higher in alcohol content than the original liquid — which, in the case of this particular spirit, is then distilled once more before the aging process begins. The distilled spirit is aged for anywhere from 8 to 18 years in casks made from regular wood, or Japanese Mizunara oak.

So, then, what methods differentiate Japanese whiskey from its Scottish descendants? First, there’s the lack of any smoke flavor, something Taketsuru tried to impart in his earliest batches at the Yamazaki Distillery before changing the recipe to suit Japanese palates. In a recent interview, Suntory’s chief blender Shinji Fukoyo also singles out three factors that are unique to the region, factors that he believes affect the final flavor of his product: Japan’s high-quality mineral water, a shifting climate (warmer summers and colder winters) that deepens the flavor during the aging process, and the people. The flavors are ultimately guided by Japanese hands and tastes, after all.

Notable Active Japanese Whiskey Distilleries

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery: The original, and perhaps the most famous of all Japanese whiskey distilleries, and producer of the award-winning Yamazaki 12 Year whiskey, is situated between Kyoto and Osaka on Honshu.

Yoichi Distillery: Famous Nikki Whiskey, notable for its peat-forward flavors, is made here. While many facilities throughout Japan have routinely updated their equipment, this distillery still looks pretty much just as it did in the 1930’s, when it first opened.

Chichibu Distillery: Grandson to the owner of the now-closed Hanyu Distillery, Ichiro Akuto continues the family tradition at Chichibu, located in Saitama Prefecture. The distillery was founded in 2007, using barrels from the then recently-closed Hanyu facility.

Hakushu Distillery: Another Suntory distillery, surrounded by a pine forest and a bird sanctuary in the stunning Japanese Alps.

Fuji Gotemba Distillery: This is the largest distillery in the world, and sits right beneath the awe-inspiring Mount Fuji. The climate here is similar to the one in Scotland, so this may be the closest thing to Scottish Whiskey you’ll find outside of the country itself.

Hombo Shuzo “Mars Shinshu” Distillery: Hombo Shuzo is nicknamed the Mars Shinshu Distillery because of their most popular product “Mars Whisky.” Located in the Nagano Prefecture, this is also the highest distillery in Japan and boasts a cold climate that aids in the distillation process.

Japanese Drinking Culture, Slang, and Customs

Of course, one would be remiss to discuss Japanese whiskey without mentioning the social and cultural importance of drinking alcohol in Japan. Simply put, drinking is integral to everyday life there. In fact, it’s not uncommon for servers at a restaurant to have several freshly poured and ice cold nama bīru (draft beer) or some open bin-bīru (bottled beer) on the ready before a party is even seated. After all, a ceremonial celebratory kanpai (or, cheers) is a necessary beginning to a gathering where alcohol is being served. The kanpai no kotoba (toast) is given by a special guest or carefully chosen invitee. That person first addresses the table with “Junbi daijōbu desuka?” (“Is everyone ready?”) to ensure everyone has a drink in hand. After saying some words, they lift their glass, shout “kanpai,” and clink glasses with the others before everyone takes a deep gulp of their beer. The phrase “umai,” (“delicious!”) is used to describe a moment where the beer is so cold it causes tears to form in the drinker’s eyes.

While beer is commonly the first drink in a night out, participants can choose whatever drink they want afterward, with many belonging to “factions” based on their drinking preference. For example, the uisukī-ha (whiskey faction) is most relevant, but there are many options one can belong to, including the bīru-ha (beer faction), shōchū-ha (shōchū faction), nihonshu-ha (rice wine faction) and wain-ha (wine faction). No one should pour anything for themselves, as it is customary to shaku suru (pour for others) and have others pour for you. This encourages a social atmosphere and nomyunikēshon, a portmanteau combining the Japanese word for drink “Nomu” and the English “communication.” Outside of a group setting, two can drink as a pair (sashinomi), drink away their sadness about some unpleasant life event (yakezake) or split up and drink by themselves (yakenomi).

When someone is looking to stop drinking for the remainder of the evening, they can say “Konya wa chotto hikaeme ni shitai desu,” or, “I’d like to take it a little easy tonight,” while leaving their glass full to make sure it doesn’t get refilled. Those looking for a non-alcoholic option will say they’re sticking with jūsu, or juice — a catchall for all non-alcoholic beverages. For anyone looking to pass on the evening altogether, politely saying “Kyō wa enryo sasete itadakimasu,” or “With your permission, I will abstain today,” is an excellent choice.

Shopping for Japanese Whiskey

While the recent shortage of Japanese whiskey has caused some alarm, it’s an inevitable byproduct of the product’s fast rise in popularity. This also means that while some of the more recognizable brands are facing a period of scarcity, many more under-the-radar whiskeys remain accessible while pushing the form forward. Affordable Japanese whiskeys, expensive Japanese whiskeys and everything in between can still easily be found. 

Here are some to look for:

Suntory Toki: An affordable Japanese whiskey blend from Suntory sources its whiskeys from three different distilleries, Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita. At $45, too, this makes for a great mixer—great for using those highball glasses.

Hibiki Japanese Harmony: Set at a reasonable $60, this is a smooth, easy-to-drink Japanese Whiskey, perfect for savoring in an old-fashioned glass (or, better yet, in an old-fashioned). It also makes a strong case for Japan’s blended whiskeys, which are sometimes better than aged ones.

Yamazaki 12 Year: Considered the Best Whiskey in the World, many want to at least see what the fuss is all about when it comes to the Yamazaki 12 Year. Pour neat in a rocks glass, savor (at $159, you’ll want to) and enjoy the fruity, well-rounded flavor of a classic.

Nikka Yoichi 12 Year: On the more expensive end, this iconic Nikka Yoichi doesn’t fool around. At $250, the price is steep, but it's clearly a bottle to treasure. A great showcase for Nikka’s distinct, peaty flavor.  

Serving Your Japanese Whiskey

Once you acquire a bottle of your own, what goes into the perfect glass of Japanese whiskey? If you were to ask us, we would say that the answer lies in your own preferences: Neat or on the rocks? Served straight in a rocks glass or, as many people in Japan do for a refreshing mealtime pairing, mixed with some soda water in a highball glass? 

We suggest starting out with something simple before moving on to more complex mixology. Once you taste the varied and often subtle flavor profiles of Japanese whiskey — they’re all unique — you’ll be ready to explore and experiment.

Of course, one of the true constants in Japanese whiskey is that it be served with style. While there’s no one true recipe for the best possible Japanese whiskey cocktail, there is something of a dress code, with many in Japan putting a major emphasis on presentation and detail. 

Large, high-quality ice cubes are popular, attractive and also don’t melt as quickly as conventional ice, so be sure to invest in a nice large ice cube tray or, as they do in Japan, learn how to carve the ice from a large block yourself. Some bars in Japan even go as far as to put their extravagant highball glasses on display with their bottles behind the counter. 

When you shop at WhiskeyGlasses.ca, you too can put this level of care in how you drink your prized bottle of Japanese whiskey, or how you serve fine Japanese whiskey in your fine dining establishment. Find glasses made from the finest materials, comfortable to the touch and ideally suited for drinking whiskey. A refined drink begs for an equally refined vessel.