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While many readers are likely familiar with famous Japanese beverage brands, such as Sapporo and Asahi, other Japanese spirits rarely have the same recognition. However, since 2008, Japanese Whisky sales have doubled due to a rapid increase in international demand. Today there are 13 whisky distilleries in Japan, six of which have opened since 2016. So what makes Japanese whisky unique, and so suddenly popular?
Today, the two juggernauts of Japanese whisky, Suntory and Nikka, claim joint influence on the founding of the industry. According to Suntory, the history of Japanese whisky began in 1923 when company founder Shinjiro Torii built the country’s first single malt distillery. It’s first product, Suntory Shirofuda, launched in 1929 with limited success. While this whisky was proclaimed as the first authentic Japanese whisky produced in a traditional Scottish style, the domestic market ultimately found it too smoky and too Scottish. In 1937 Suntory took another crack at a ‘Japanese whisky’, this time catering to what was deemed the more delicate Japanese palette. This “Kakubin Whisky” was far more successful. Domestically, whisky became very popular. Japanese whisky became the Imperial Navy’s drink of choice and distilleries were even given preferred military status, keeping the budding industry alive through WWII.
This story changes a little if you ask rival company Nikka. According to its version of events, the history begins in 1918, when Masataka Taketsuru travelled to Scotland to study at the University of Glasgow. He went on to apprentice at several renowned distilleries, methodically learning the traditional craft. Masataka returned to Japan in 1920 with his Scottish wife Jessie Roberta (Rita) and began working for Suntory. Masataka helped open Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery in 1923, and worked for the company for 10 years. In 1934 Masataka founded his own company and opened the Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido, to pursue his own Scottish-influenced style of Japanese whisky. Nikka Whisky was first released in 1940, with much of the same strong Scottish flavor profile of his first and less successful Suntory Shirofuda Whisky. The company continued to grow, and in 2001 Whisky Magazine named the “2001 – Single Cask Yoichi 10 year” the “Best of the Best”. This marked the beginning of the Japanese whisky boom.
Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the United States, and Japan all produce unique and highly varied whiskies. While the Japanese whisky industry is just less than a century old, the origin of the spirit dates back hundreds of years in Scotland. What makes Japanese whisky unique is a combination of dedication to tradition and a commitment to finding a Japanese spirit. Japan has pursued blended whiskies with unparalleled attention to detail. While Scottish producers have long shared their products in order to create blended varieties, Japanese companies are notoriously secretive. Rather than share and collaborate with competitors, companies have strived to create as many varieties as they can in their own distilleries. Suntory’s Yamazaki Whisky Library houses thousands of bottles of unblended single malts for master blenders to work with. Producers can also vastly change the flavor through the type of oak vessel used to age the spirit, the minerals in the water, the type of distillation, and more.
Japan is a mountainous country rich in natural mineral springs, and many distilleries have been strategically placed to access these natural waters, such as Mars Shinshu distillery built at the base of the Kiso mountains. Producers like Nikka and Akashi create unique Japanese characters by using barrels made from the rare Japanese Mizunara oak. All these factors and more have allowed Japanese producers to carve out their own place in the history of whisky, to almost too great a success; today, the industry faces the unusual challenge of too much success. Since whisky takes years, and even decades to produce, the rapid increase in demand has caused massive shortages of stock. However demand remains high, and with new distilleries opening every year, Japanese whisky is sure to see even more popularity and success.