A Guide to Japanese Whiskey

Large variety of Hibiki Whiskey Food & Drinks
Writer's Profile
Writer’s Profile

Bryce was born in California, but raised from the age of 3 near Seattle, Washington. He’s been living in Tokyo for about 7 years, and graduated from Temple University, Japan with degrees in economics and international business. He loves traveling of course, but also cooking, snowboarding, some video games as well. His biggest interest is songwriting/music production, more specifically electronic music… (think Skrillex, Marshmello, Daft Punk, etc.) He also has terrible humor as you’ll notice, but he hopes you’ll enjoy it!

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If you find yourself adventuring through the wonderful country of Japan, you’re in for a treat beyond Sushi and cherry blossoms. Many may know that Japan is well known for its whiskey, however, as one may expect Japan’s famous alcohols to be things like Sake or Shochu, it could be surprising to learn about Japan’s incredible whiskey scene! Today, we’ll embark on a journey through the captivating world of Japanese whiskey. Known for its exceptional craftsmanship, rich history, and unique flavors, Japanese whiskey is a must-try for any enthusiast or curious traveler. So, grab your glasses, and let’s dive into the amber-hued wonders of Japan’s liquid gold!

What is Japanese Whiskey?

whiskey japan

When it comes to whiskey, Scotland may come to mind, but did you know that Japan has been perfecting its own style of this cherished spirit since the early 20th century? Inspired by the Scottish art of whiskey-making, Japanese distilleries have honed their craft to create a distinct and globally recognized product.

See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
http://www.bushidodreams.com/?p=4354, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The history of Japanese whiskey is intertwined with the story of two visionary pioneers: Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii. Taketsuru, often called the father of Japanese whiskey, traveled to Scotland to learn the secrets of the trade. Armed with this knowledge, he returned to Japan and founded the country’s first whiskey distillery in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto

Shinjiro Torii founded Kotobukiya, which would later be known as Suntory. Taketsuru was hired as a distillery executive but left Kotobukiya to found Dainipponkaju, which would later become Nikka. With their combined efforts, Japanese whiskey quickly gained recognition for its smoothness, complexity, and exceptional quality.

Whiskey in Japan really took off in the 1950s, and led to the “whiskey wars” in the 1960s. The 1970s yielded incredible growth in the consumption of whiskey. Kirin entered the scene as well, and in the 1980s Suntory reached a world record for the highest annual sales in a single brand. After a peak in 1983, consumption declined to 20% of 1983’s and hasn’t returned since.

How is Whiskey Made?

Japanese whiskey production follows a process similar to that of Scottish whiskey. The key ingredients are water, grain, and yeast, and the flavor of the whiskey depends on the method of production. Let’s dive into the fascinating journey of Japanese whiskey-making!

Step 1: Malting the Barley

Barley is a crucial ingredient in Japanese whiskey, and it undergoes a series of steps to transform it into alcohol. The barley grains are soaked in water in order to germinate. After that, the barley is dried using hot air.

Step 2: Alcoholic Fermentation (Mashing & Fermentation)

The dried malt is ground and mixed with hot water in a process called mashing. This separates the dissolved sugar from the grain, forming a sugar solution. Yeast cultures are added to the cooled sugar solution, which ferments the mixture. This process results in the production of a “wash” with an alcohol content of 8-10%.

Step 3: Distillation

The wash is then transferred to pot stills or column stills for distillation. Pot stills consist of a lower vessel containing the wash, which heats the liquid and releases alcohol vapors. The vapors rise through the neck of the still and condense back into liquid form in the condenser. This double distillation process separates usable alcohol from the pre- and post-distillate. The resulting distillate, known as New Make, has an alcohol content of about 70%.

Step 4: Maturation in the Barrel

The New Make is poured into barrels, where it undergoes maturation to develop its distinct flavors. The choice of barrels, maturation length, and climate all contribute to the final product’s taste. The unique Japanese climate interacts with the whiskey and the wood of the barrel, creating a distinctive flavor profile. According to Japanese law, for a whiskey to be labeled as Japanese whiskey, it must mature for a minimum of three years.

Step 5: Blending & Bottling

To ensure consistency in flavor, master blenders combine different casks (sometimes up to 40!), including varying ages, to create a balanced blend. Sugar caramel, a food coloring, is sometimes used to maintain consistent color among different batches. After blending, the whiskey is bottled, often diluted to a desired alcohol content ranging from 40% to cask strength, which can reach 53-65%.

Whiskey Producing Areas of Japan

Much like the diverse regions of Japan, whiskey production is spread across the country. Each area contributes its unique character and taste, via a variety of distilleries and drinking scenes, to the final product. Let’s take a whirlwind tour of some prominent whiskey-producing regions in Japan:

Osaka: Known for its bustling streets and vibrant nightlife, Osaka is home to a couple of distilleries that produce exceptional whiskey. Head there in June for an epic whiskey festival!

Yamanashi: Nestled in the picturesque mountains, Yamanashi offers serene surroundings for whiskey production. The pure mountain water and cool climate create an ideal environment for distilleries to work their magic. Make sure to check out Mt. Fuji while you’re there!

Hokkaido: Known for its icy winters and breathtaking landscapes, Hokkaido boasts distilleries that harness the power of nature to create remarkable whiskey. Bundle up and venture into this winter wonderland to warm your soul with a glass of liquid gold.

Saitama/Chichibu: The Chichibu region in Saitama Prefecture is a rising star in the Japanese whiskey scene. Chichibu captures the essence of craft and offers a glimpse into the future of Japanese whiskey.

Aichi: Home to the historic city of Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture harbors a few distilleries that produce delightful craft whiskey. Be sure to pick up a tasty souvenir after exploring the region’s rich history and vibrant culture.

Popular Japanese Whiskies

No guide to Japanese whiskey would be complete without mentioning some of the renowned brands that have gained international acclaim. These whiskies, of course, an integral part of the history we talked about, embody the essence of Japanese craftsmanship and are celebrated for their exceptional quality and character. Here are a few popular choices to ignite your whiskey exploration, but be sure to note that there are plenty of choices to discover:

Yamazaki: Produced by the trailblazing Suntory distillery, Yamazaki whiskey epitomizes elegance and sophistication. Its smooth and well-balanced flavors, often with hints of fruit and spices, make it a favorite among connoisseurs.

Hibiki: With its harmonious blend of malt and grain whiskies, Hibiki is a symphony of flavors. From its signature 17-year-old expression to limited editions, each bottle is a work of art that embodies the spirit of Japanese craftsmanship.

Nikka: Nikka distillery offers a range of whiskies that showcase the diverse regions of Japan. From the rich and smoky Yoichi expressions to the delicate and floral Miyagikyo releases, Nikka has something to entice every palate.

Whiskey Distillery Tours

Now that you’ve developed a taste for Japanese whiskey, why not take your appreciation to the next level with a visit to a whiskey distillery? Embark on an immersive experience that will deepen your understanding of the craft and provide a glimpse into the meticulous processes involved. Joining the in-depth and enticing whiskey tours is the perfect pairing to your enhanced craving for whiskey that you’re surely feeling by now! They will be happy to guide you and share some memorable “Kanpai’s” to add to your highlights in Japan!

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Happy traveling!

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