Views The Story of Japanese Whisky
Japan Distills a World-Class Whisky Tradition
A Visit to Nikka and Suntory Distilleries
[2014.09.03] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | Русский |

Whisky may have its roots in Scotland, but for nearly a century Japan has been distilling its own brands of the popular spirit. In recent years Japanese whisky has earned a name for itself, winning fans and widespread acclaim overseas. We visited two distilleries in Japan to find out more about this burgeoning tradition.

The experience of savoring a glass of fine whisky is like entering into another world. The whisky lover is transported by the sight of the amber liquid and its rich, complex aroma intermingled with traces of the malt used to make the drink and hints of other ingredients.

How is it that a drink made with nothing more than barley and water can be cultivated to have such marvelously complex aromas and flavors? The answer comes down to a combination of the long aging process of up to 20 years or more after distillation, when natural flavors are picked up from casks storing the malt whisky, and the expertise of those tasked with overseeing the production process.

Japanese Whiskies Earn Global Respect

The British publication Whisky Magazine held its first “Best of the Best” contest in 2001, and Japanese distillers came away with the top two spots, as Suntory’s Hibiki 21-year-old placed second and Nikka’s Yoichi 10-year-old grabbed the first prize overall.

For the contest, 62 experts evaluated 47 whisky brands from Britain, the United States, and Japan. It was the first time for Japanese whisky to be recognized as among the world’s best, beating out renowned whiskies distilled in Scotland, the birthplace of the drink.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the beginning of malt whisky production in Japan, which began in 1924 at the distillery of Kotobukiya (present-day Suntory Ltd.) located in the Yamazaki area outside Kyoto. As is clear from the table below, today’s Japanese whiskies proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with Scotch whiskies in terms of quality and flavor. We visited two distilleries in Japan to uncover the secrets behind their success.

Major Award-Winning Japanese Whiskies

2001 WMA Best of the Best 1st prize Nikka Single Cask Yoichi 10 Years Old
2nd prize Suntory Hibiki 21 Years Old
2007 WWA World’s Best Blended Whisky Suntory Hibiki 30 Years Old
WWA World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky Nikka Taketsuru 21 Years Old
2008 WWA World’s Best Blended Whisky Suntory Hibiki 30 Years Old
WWA World’s Best Single Malt Whisky Nikka Single Malt Yoichi 1987
2009 WWA World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky Nikka Taketsuru 21 Years Old
2010 WWA World’s Best Blended Whisky Suntory Hibiki 21 Years Old
WWA World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky Nikka Taketsuru 21 Years Old
2011 WWA World’s Best Blended Whisky Suntory Hibiki 21 Years Old
WWA World’s Best Single Malt Whisky Suntory Yamazaki 1984
WWA World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky Nikka Taketsuru 21 Years Old
2012 WWA World’s Best Single Malt Whisky Suntory Yamazai 25 Years Old
WWA World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky Nikka Taketsuru 17 Years Old
2013 WWA World’s Best Blended Whisky Suntory Hibiki 21 Years Old
WWA World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky Mars Maltage 3 Plus 25, 28 Years Old
2014 WWA World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky Nikka Taketsuru 17 Years Old

Note: “WM” is the abbreviation for Whisky Magazine and “WMA” stands for World Whiskies Awards

Nikka Single Cask Yoichi 10 Years Old (left); Suntory Hibiki 21 Years Old (center); Nikka Taketsuru 21 Years Old (right)

80-year-old Yoichi Distillery Untouched by Time

An hour’s train ride from Sapporo, at the base of the Shakotan Peninsula, is Yoichi—a town of roughly 20,000 inhabitants that is a center of apple, cherry, and other fruit production. Near Yoichi’s train station, on the other side of a magnificent stone gate, is the Nikka distillery that has given birth to the malt whisky voted the world’s best in 2001. The distillery buildings look the same as they did when they first opened, 80 years earlier.

Stone gate entrance to Nikka’s Yoichi distillery. (left); View of the distillery from the second-floor window of the stone gate. (right)

At the distillery we meet the head of operations, Sugimoto Jun’ichi, who tells us more about how Nikka Single Cask Yoichi earned the top prize from Whisky Magazine in 2001:

Sugimoto Jun’ichi, the head of the Yoichi distillery.

“That ten-year-old whisky was aged in new casks. We undertook the challenge of doing that in the hope of creating a rich, full-bodied whisky. We evaluated the whisky after three or four years and knew we were on the right track and had chosen casks that perfectly suited the sort of flavor we were seeking.”

For most malt whiskies, distillers use casks that were formerly used to age bourbon whiskey or sherry, rather than new ones whose strong wood fragrance could overwhelm the delicate flavors of the distilled drink. The general view is that it is hard to master the use of new casks.

“There certainly was a risk involved,” Sugimoto notes, “but we made adjustments in terms of how we burned the inside of the casks and other things.” Apparently, the success Nikka achieved has even encouraged some distillers in Scotland to try their hand at using new casks.

  • [2014.09.03]
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  • The Woman Who Took Whisky to Japan: Remembering Rita Cowan TaketsuruThe story of the award-winning, globally known Nikka Whisky brand all began in a small town near Glasgow, where a doctor’s daughter met an ambitious young Japanese chemist. Nippon.com traveled to Kirkintilloch to trace the footsteps of Rita Taketsuru.

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