When you think of Japan, several drinks come to mind: sake, Sapporo, and…whisky? Wait, how did a drink synonymous with Scotland and Ireland become associated with Japan? Actually, it’s a fascinating story…
A Note On Spelling
Before we go any further, a quick spelling lesson…while whiskey is the preferred spelling in the United States and Ireland, Japanese, Scottish, and Canadian products are spelled whisky. Since this is an article about Japan, I will go with the latter spelling, except when talking about American products. And now, back to the history lesson.
Japanese Whisky’s Origins
The official history of Japanese whisky goes back almost one hundred years, to 1923. That’s when Shinjiro Torii established the Suntory Whisky distillery in Osaka. Suntory, Japan’s first official whisky distillery, still operates to this day, and still makes some of the most sought-after whisky in Japan. Torii, who was introduced to Western liquors through his apprenticeship with a pharmaceutical wholesaler, fell in love with the traditional techniques of Scotch whisky making. Choosing to adapt these methods to the Japanese climate, Torri used his family’s fortunes to open his flagship distillery in what was then a pastoral wooded area between Osaka and Kyoto—a region known to have some of the purest natural water in Japan (incidentally, central Kentucky’s limestone-filtered waters are a big part of why bourbon is so tied to that region).
Japanese Whisky Today
Whisky’s popularity in Japan has only increased over time. And here is a fun fact for all you whisky-loving movie buffs out there: Bill Murray’s character in the 2003 cult classic Lost in Translation was in Japan to film a commercial for the Suntory brand. Japanese whisky is not only a hit product locally; it has gained traction around the world as well. In this sense, Japanese whisky has come full circle: influenced by Western whisky-making techniques, Japanese whisky is now exported to the West in large quantities. The biggest importer of Japanese whisky is nearby China, with the United States coming in second. France, Australia, the Netherlands, and Singapore are all major importers of the smooth, smoky drink. Japan’s whisky exports in 2021 totaled a staggering $801 million, a 64% increase over 2020’s sales. Japanese whisky is truly getting more popular with each passing year.
My Top Japanese Whiskies
Today, there are several brands of Japanese whisky, each offering a unique line of products and flavor profiles. Below, you will find my top five. While most of these great whiskies can be found here in the States, I highly recommend touring some of these distilleries if you are ever in Japan. Tours will give you a unique perspective on how Japanese whisky is made, while also giving you the chance to see some of the most beautiful areas of the Japanese countryside.
I would be remiss not to start with the one that started it all—the Suntory brand that I had mentioned previously. Suntory’s flagship product is its Yamazaki: a complex single malt whisky with fruity aromas. This is the top selling single malt whisky in Japan, and one that is enjoyed in 35 different countries (as the company boasts). Whisky lovers looking for something a bit more verdant should try the Hakushu whisky: a single malt with crisp, herbal notes (this whisky is green in color). Finally, if you are looking to go all out, there is the Hibiki Whisky. Launched in 1989 to commemorate the company’s 90th anniversary, this blended whisky is Japan’s most awarded whisky blend. For a full list of Suntory products and purchase locations, check out the company’s exceptional website at https://whisky.suntory.com/en/na.
Nikka is arguably Suntory’s biggest rival in the Japanese whisky game. Japan’s second-largest whisky distillery was launched in 1934, in the northern town of Yoichi. The cold climate in Yoichi is said to be similar to Scotland, and the whiskies that pour out of its Yoichi distillery can go toe-to-toe with the best that Scotland has to offer. Nikka’s single malt Yoichi is the product that everyone should start with, while the Coffey Grain is certainly the company’s show-stopper. Distilled in a Coffey Still, this amber-colored whisky benefits from the sweet and mellow flavors imparted by its American oak barrels.
3. Mars Shinshu
Located in the snow-capped mountains in the southern part of the country, Mars Shinshu holds the distinction of being the highest distillery in Japan. With that beautiful mountain setting comes good water and good whisky (plus, the cold mountain air helps the whisky mature more gradually). The Hambo family founded Mars Shinshu back in the mid-nineteenth century, but they only started distilling whisky in 1949. Since then, Mars Shinshu has become one of Japan’s most beloved whisky distillers. While many of the distilleries on this list were inspired by Scottish whisky distilleries, Mars Shinshu’s signature product – the Iwai – was inspired by American whiskies. Delicious and affordable, this high-quality whisky sells for under $50 a bottle. This is a great starter Japanese whisky.
4. Kirin Fuji Gotemba
Owned by the Kirin Group (perhaps you have seen, or even tasted, Kirin Ichiban beer?) The Fuji Gotemba distillery also holds a really cool distinction: it is the largest distillery by square feet in the world (1.7 million square feet, to be exact). Tours of this massive distillery are available and often include tastings (score!). And the location couldn’t be better: as the name implies, the Fuji Gotemba distillery is located in the shadow of Japan’s famous Mount Fuji. The distillery even gets its water from the iconic mountain. Selling at about $150 per bottle, the distillery’s Sanroku Whisky is a little pricy but worth it. Afficionados rave about this rich, slightly creamy whisky.
The Chichibu distillery is the newest distillery on this list. In fact, when it was established in 2004, it was the first new Japanese distillery to come along in over 30 years. While it might not be terribly old, this distillery (founded by famed whisky scion Ichiro Akuto) has quickly earned a stellar reputation. Chichibu has become pioneers in what is known as the “ji-whisky” movement, which prizes smaller, local distilleries (similar to the microbrewery movement here in the States). Being a smaller distillery, Chichibu’s products are harder to come by in the U.S, but they are certainly worth exploring if you are ever in Japan.
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