How this Japanese whisky became the world's best

By Thomas Wilson, Reuters

Posted at Dec 06 2014 08:04 AM | Updated as of Dec 06 2014 04:04 PM

A bartender pours Yamazaki whisky at the Hibiya whisky bar in the Ginza district in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Thomas Peter, Reuters

YAMAZAKI, Japan - Nestled at the foot of wooded hills near the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, the Yamazaki whisky distillery feels a long way from the northerly glens of Scotch's spiritual home.

Despite its unlikely birthplace, last month Yamazaki's Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 trumped more than 1,000 challengers to be named the world's best whisky by prominent critic Jim Murray in his Whisky Bible 2015.

The first Japanese whisky to claim the crown owes its success to adroit exploitation of climate and water, special casks and a keen awareness of the Japanese palate, the company says.

In Yamazaki's cavernous cellar, 2,000 barrels emit a heady scent as the whiskies mature, the casks breathing as the seasons change to produce a flavour praised as "near indescribable genius" by Murray.

"Hot summers make for a complex, deep aroma," said Shinji Fukuyo, chief blender at Beam Suntory BSI.UL, which owns Yamazaki.

Taken from the wells of a nearby town, the distillery's water is prized for its mineral content and softness, while maturation occurs in hard-to-come-by sherry casks, specially crafted from oak in northern Spain.

The popularity of whisky in Japan has ebbed and flowed since Masataka Taketsuru, the son of a sake brewer, returned from Scotland in 1918, establishing the country's first distillery at Yamazaki five years later.

As the good times rolled in Japan's 1980s bubble-era, Scotch mixed with water became an indispensable part of business culture.

But sales slumped as the economy flopped in the 1990s, with drinkers opting for beer and clear spirits. Since the turn of the century, demand has recovered on the back of a newfound taste for highballs and growing international praise for Japanese whisky.

Highlighting whisky's increased profile in Japan, public broadcaster NHK is showing a television drama inspired by Taketsuru and his Scottish wife.

At a dimly lit bar in Tokyo's upmarket Ginza district, drinkers, tippling as jazz tinkles in the background, are proud of Japan's moment in the world whisky spotlight.

"There are so many famous whiskies, so for a Japanese one to become well-known, I'm very happy," said nutritionist Miki Asakawa.

(Reporting by Thomas Wilson; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Robert Birsel)
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