When Japan came out of its 300-year isolation during the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it embarked on a furious pace of Westernization, as if to catch up with the world after centuries of slumber. Almost overnight, the feudal government was overthrown and a parliamentary system was put in place. But enthusiasm for things Western was not limited to the government, its instrumentalities, and the elites who ran things. Western culture was also being absorbed by ordinary people who were suddenly exposed to many new things brought in from overseas.
The first whisky distillery in Japan was set up by Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory. Torii got his start by importing Spanish wines and making dessert drinks. But he dreamt of one day having a distillery to make whisky in the Scottish style. Although opposed by nearly all of his executives, the bull-headed Torii got his way and the Yamazaki distillery, located between Japan’s largest cities (Tokyo and Osaka), was built in 1923. Even if Torii had his distillery, the technical knowledge to produce whisky still had to be acquired from elsewhere.
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Japan, of course, had sake, its native alcoholic beverage. Popularly referred to as rice wine, sake is actually a rice beer as a cereal is used as a primary ingredient, not fruit. It was a scion from a family of sake brewers going back to 1733 that the story of Japanese whisky really began. Masataka Taketsuru left the world of sake to study whisky-making. He attended Glasgow University and worked at Hazelburn in Campbeltown and Longmore at Speyside. While in Scotland, he lived with the family of a doctor and fell in love with the doctor’s daughter, Rita. They married without the approval of either family and relocated to Japan.
Taketsuru was hired by Suntory to set up and run the Yamazaki distillery. His first-hand knowledge of whisky-making from his study and work in Scotland proved to be a valuable asset, as was his wife, whose connections in Scotland helped him in his career.
After a few years at Yamazaki, Taketsuru left to establish his own distillery, the Nikka Yoichi distillery west of Sapporo, on Hokkaido Island, located north of Japan and similar to the Scottish town where he had studied. Yoichi is reputed to be the prettiest and most attractive in Japan. Nikka has a second, less well-known, distillery called Miyagikyo located at Sendai on Honshu, the main island.
Japanese whisky producers make all their whisky, including blends, without using the distillations of other whisky producers.
Meanwhile, Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery churned out various blends for the company until the demand for whisky drove the company to open a second distillery called Hakushu. Opened in 1970, Hakushu occupies a dramatic site where three mountain ranges known as the Japanese Alps meet to form a plateau.
It also happens to be the world’s largest malt distillery with a capacity of six million liters. In order to preserve the environment and its influence on the whisky, a large portion of the surrounding forest was also purchased by Suntory. The forest is now a bird sanctuary and home to over 60 species.
The whiskies of Nikka and Suntory are the most famous and well distributed but there are other, smaller companies. Eigashima Shuzo is a tiny distillery that was originally a sake and shochu maker. Chichibu is another small producer from Saitama, about 100 kilometers northwest of Tokyo. The company is so serious about its craft, the staff travel to Scotland every year to study. Chichibu’s whiskies have won many awards and are highly regarded. The Hombo Mars distillery started as a shochu maker and diversified into whisky, beer, brandy and wine. Fuji Gotemba, located close to Mount Fuji, is another less well-known distillery that produces both grain and malt whiskies.
Although there were once many more distilleries in Japan, many have closed down. It is still possible to find products from distilleries such as Kawasaki, Kagoshima, and Yamazakura, but they are difficult to source.
There are certainly similarities between Japanese whisky and the original from Scotland. The spelling, for one, is the same: whisky and not whiskey. The malt, in many cases, is imported from Scotland although it may also be sourced from other countries such as Ireland, Australia, or the US. There is some barley grown for malting in Japan but it is hardly enough to supply the demand. For aging, aside from the usual sherry, bourbon, or other casks used in Scotland, Japanese companies also use Japanese oak or Mizunara. It is said to impart an incense-like aroma to the whisky. Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that Japanese whisky producers make all their whisky, including blends, without using the distillations of other whisky producers. In Scotland, the practice is for malt distilleries that make blends to source whisky for the blends from other distilleries. This will never happen in Japan.
Once limited to the Japanese market, Japanese whisky is making waves around the world, winning many awards in various international spirit competitions. Those with an interest in whisky would do well to explore it.
This story first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 13 No 1 2014.