Modern success and newfound heritage
Today, the best Japanese whiskies sit alongside Scottish single malts and oak-aged American bourbons as equals, commanding some of the highest prices of any distilled spirit. Discerning collectors and everyday connoisseurs recognize Japanese whiskey as some of the very best in the world.
Although modeled on the Scottish distillery tradition, Japanese whiskies have a unique character. From the variety of woods used in the barrels, like Mizunara oak, a wood found only in Japan, to the celebrated water sources and unique stills, Japanese whisky has a distinct flavor profile and heritage that distillers can replicate nowhere else in the world.
Suntory: A pioneer in the art of distillation
Suntory is the founding father of whisky production in Japan, and the company opened the first whiskey distillery in the country in 1923. Today, the Yamazaki distillery is a fabled site in Japanese whisky production.
Yet, Suntory wasn’t always a whiskey producer. In the beginning, the company created a popular beverage called Akadama Sweet Wine, which is still a popular drink today. Yet, it was the development of the company’s Suntory Kakubin whiskey in 1937 that propelled the company to greatness. In fact, Suntory Kakubin remains the most popular whiskey in Japan to this day.
And Suntory isn’t just responsible for creating Japan’s most famous whiskey, it also contributed greatly to the culture of whiskey drinking in the country. In 1955, Suntory introduced whisky bars to cities nationwide, giving many their first taste of the delectable amber spirit.
Three brands that are gaining popularity overseas
Suntory may be the most famous Japanese whiskey brand, but it isn’t the only one finding favor beyond Japan. Nikka Whiskey is another brand with an excellent pedigree, and its founder, Masataka Taketsuru, is also heralded as a pioneer in Japanese whiskey distilling.
Nikka produces a wide range of whiskeys, from its single malt Yoichi, to its Coffey Grain, a unique spirit made with corn and a popular tipple amongst bourbon drinkers.
The Chichibu distillery is a relative newcomer to Japan’s whiskey scene, having opened in 2007 around 100 km north of Tokyo. However, in its short lifetime, the distillery has garnered a worldwide reputation for developing innovative blends taking advantage of the region’s varied climate, which adds character to the barrels.
Finally, the Hombo Shuzo (Mars Shinshu) distillery, located 798 meters above sea level, uses melted snow fed into nearby streams to create some of the purest whiskies in the world.
Why are Japanese whiskies so popular?
Some say it’s the water, others the unique attention to detail that only Japanese artisans can achieve, but without question, Japan’s rise to the upper echelons of whiskey has been rapid and unprecedented.
Of course, ingredients matter, and only the very best are used in Japanese whiskey production. In fact, the variety of casks, flavors, from peaty to fresh, and malts make Japanese whiskey unlike any other in the world. However, many commentators remark that it is the expert blending skills adopted by Japanese distillers that make their spirits truly stand out.