Forget Scotch and Kilts: The Rise of Japanese Whisky

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On an island, at one of the furthest points from Scotland, a long tradition of spirit distillation is turning Japan into one of the worlds finest whisky producers.

Japanese whisky is really only 80 years old. In 1918, Masataka Taketsuru, a young sake maker, was hired by Settsu Shuzou, a spirits producer from Osaka to go to Scotland and learn how to make whisky.

He enrolled for an Applied Chemistry course at Glasgow University, achieved his degree, fell in love with Scotch whisky (and a young Scots lassie) and served his apprenticeship at Longmorn and Hazelburn distilleries.

On his return to Japan in 1921, he found Japan in the depths of a recession and Settsu could no longer afford to finance the project. Taketsuru convinced another entrepreneur, Shinjiro Torii of Kotobukiya (which later became Suntory), of the financial viability of the project and Yamazaki distillery in Osaka began production in 1924. In 1929, Japan’s first wholly Japanese-produced whisky, a Scotch whisky lookalike called Shirofuda (White Label), was launched.

Taketsuru managed Yamazaki until a disagreement with his employers caused him to leave. At this time, 1934, he travelled north to Hokkaido, where he established his own distillery, Yoichi, and company – Nikka. Initially, Taketsura had only the one still that was cleaned out between distillations, because he quite simply could not afford the second. He felt that the humidity and water supply were similar to those in Scotland and there was a handy peat moor nearby. Nowadays, four of Yoichi’s six stills are direct-fired by coal.

In the meantime, Shirofuda was not turning out to be the success that had been dreamed for it. 

Both companies realised that, to be a success, Japanese whisky could not simply replicate its Scottish competitor, it had to establish its own signature. Scotch whisky had evolved, in many ways painfully, over the previous 500 years, Japanese whisky did not have the luxury of such a lengthy gestation period, its creators needed it to hatch fully grown – and quickly.

Fortunately for both Suntory and Nikka, the Japanese are quick learners and, whereas Scotland’s whisky blenders can call on the output of 104 different distilleries, each of which produces a different whisky to contribute to their recipe, the Japanese have been more inventive, adopting the Irish habit of producing a number of styles of whisky from the one distillery by having varying shapes of stills in the stillhouse. 

By carrying out the first distillation in still shape A and the second distillation in still shape B, they can produce a different spirit character to that from a first distillation in still shape C and second distillation in still shape A. When you factor in different yeasts and the varying types of oak, including Japanese (Quercus serrata, which is known locally as ‘Mizunara’) to the mix, the variety of flavour characters available to the Japanese blender is considerable.

My own experiences of Japanese whiskies over the past 35 years have, likewise, been a steep learning curve. Initially, in the 1970s, the whiskies I tasted were a very disappointing alternative to Scotch. Since the mid-1990s, their quality has improved dramatically and Japan is now the world’s second largest single malt producing country. This improvement has been to the extent that, even in Scotch whisky’s heartland, the modern offerings from Japan’s distillers are being well-received. The Edinburgh-based retailer, Royal Mile Whiskies advises that their Japanese whisky sales have grown enormously in the past five to eight years and that some of these sales are even to Scottish customers. They advise that their online store exports them all over the world, even back to Japan in a surreal coals to Newcastle style! They tell me, ‘The Swedes are particularly good customers for Japanese Whiskies as their whisky clubs sample good volumes from all of the world’s distillers.’

Today, there are seven working distilleries in Japan: Suntory own two, Yamazaki and Hakushu, with the original Hakushu and Hakushu Higashi having been merged into the one unit; Nikka own two, Yoichi and Miyagikyo; Karuizawa which is wholly-owned by the Kirin Holdings Co Ltd; Fuji-Gotemba is owned by Kirin Distillery, which started as a joint venture between Kirin and Chivas Brothers; White Oak Distillery, which is owned by Eigashima Shuzou, a sake producer in Akashi town, Hyogoken and Chichibu which is owned by Ichiro Akuto. Eigashima Shuzou are rumoured to have begun distilling in 1919, but the present distillery was founded in 1985. It produces infrequently and currently has no stock of their White Oak Akashi Single Malt.

Ichiro Akuto, on the other hand, seems to be going from strength to strength. He bought the stills and maturing stock from the now defunct Hanyu distillery and opened the new Chichibu distillery in the spring of 2008. I understand that the Hanyu stills remain in storage and that the new Chichibu stills were imported from Forsyth’s of Rothes in Scotland.

This is a long-term plan, with ongoing funding from the bottling of the former Hanyu stock under the ‘Ichiro’s Malt’, the playing card label. The peat for Chichibu comes from Scotland and barley is currently sourced from England and Germany. The longer-term aim is to use peat from the Saitama area and also to grow barley in the locality.

Japan’s chattering classes are still muttering about the closure of the multi-award-winning Karuizawa distillery, with its four small stills. Unfortunately, it had to happen eventually — the distillery only produced one style of whisky, and, as such, didn’t not have the flexibility of its competitors. Situated at the foot of Mt Asama, an active volcano on the island of Honshu that last erupted in 2004, the distillery’s walls are ivy-clad, which helped keep internal temperatures down.

John Lamond is a Master of Malt near Stirling in Scotland. Written with Takeshi Mogi.

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