Over the recent years, Japanese whiskies have become exceedingly popular. It’s popularity culminated in 2014, when Suntory’s Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 took the ‘best in the world’ title in Jim Murray’s 2015 whisky bible. While the Scots may have been mortified, this wasn’t the biggest surprise, as the Japanese have been quietly perfecting their craft over the years.
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We’re huge fans of Japanese whiskies ourselves, so we’re going to share some of the essential facts about Japanese whisky to help you understand the hype, and hopefully get you started on your own Japanese whisky journey!
- The first commercial distillery was built in 1923. That’s over 90 years ago!
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The Yamazaki distillery was build by Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory, back in 1923. Torii was the first master blender of Yamazaki who built the distillery based on the principles of having a good water source and a good natural environment.
Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru who helped establish the Yamazaki distillery with knowledge he gained from studying the art of distilling in Scotland. In 1934, Taketsuru left Suntory and started Dainipponkaju, which is known today as Nikka.
- Japanese whisky is very similar to Scotch whisky
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Japanese whisky makers studied the craft of the Scots closely, resulting in the many similarities and conventions shared between them. Just like Scotch, Japanese whiskies are distilled twice using pot stills. Ingredients are also similar, as Japanese single malts are made from malted barley.
Even the spelling of Japanese whisky without the ‘e’ follows Scottish traditions, unlike Irish and American varieties, which are referred to as ‘whiskey’.
- Japanese whisky today
Today, Suntory and Nikka feed most of the world’s increasing demand for Japanese whisky. As Taketsuru left Suntory to found Nikka, it is no surprise that Suntory’s websites do not mention his role in laying the foundations of Japanese whisky.
The global demand for Japanese whisky is increasing, resulting in soaring prices and scarcity of certain expressions. As a result, smaller distilleries like Chichibu and Mars Shinshu are starting to get some well-deserved attention.
- Japanese whiskies ideal for beginners
Japanese whiskies are great for beginners because they are designed to go very well with ice and water. Here are some of our favourite, entry-level Japanese whiskies that are loved by critics and are great for beginners.
Yamazaki Aged 12 Years – A delicious classic that is sweet, light and floral. On the palate, it is big on citrus and vanilla oakiness. A perfect initiation into Japanese whisky.
Hakushu Aged 12 Years – Perfect for those who love a little more smoke, this expression is very much like an Islay single malt thanks to its use of peated barley. It is also big on green and herbal flavours like pear. More info here.
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Years Old – A combination of 12-year-old malts from Nikka’s distilleries, this expression is an incredibly balanced and smooth. A big honey flavour permeates, along with hints of vanilla and apple. More info here.