Sake (Nihonshu) may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of alcohol in Japan, or perhaps shochu, sake’s cheerful cousin. But Japan has become a powerhouse in the world of whisky in recent years, and the accolades keep rolling in. Japanese bottles picked up the World’s Best Blended Malt (Taketsuru 17) and World’s Best Single Malt (Hakushi 25) at the World Whiskies Awards this year, while Hibiki 21 took home trophies from the 2017 International Spirits Challenge, including the top award, the Supreme Champion Spirit of the Year.
According to “Bartender’s Manual” (Hanazaki and Yamazaki, 2000), knowledge of the existence of whisky first came to Japan in 1853 during Commodore Perry’s fateful visit, and it was first imported in 1871 after the Meiji Restoration. It didn’t take off immediately but, in 1918, a young chemist from Hiroshima called Masataka Taketsurutravelled to Scotland to learn about whisky. After completing two internships at distilleries, he returned to Japan with his Scottish bride, Rita Cowan. He went on to help establish the Yamazaki Distillery under the auspices of Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Kotobukiya, the precursor to Suntory. Masataka and Rita later split off to found their own distillery, called Yoichi, in Hokkaido, which went on to become Nikka Whisky. Suntory and Nikka are now the top two whisky producers in Japan.
Masataka and Rita’s story was made into a television drama called Massan for NHK, Japan’s national TV network. It was hugely popular and caused a run on domestic whisky, which was already hard to find and winning prizes round the world. And it’s no coincidence that Japan’s whisky godfather studied his craft in Scotland and the Scottish spelling “whisky” (without an ‘e’) is generally used in Japan.
Suntory Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo emphasises the importance of this legacy. “Japanese whisky has independently progressed for over 90 years by referring to the Scottish whisky paradigm.”
For years, though, Japan was a minor player on the whisky scene. Gradually, as the spirits matured, the diligence of the producers paid off and the world began to take notice. “That’s because Japanese professionals work meticulously at each stage and always try to aim ever higher,” says Fukuyo. “And then our natural environment has pure, clean, soft water, along with dynamic changes in climate between hot winters and cold summers. That produces whiskies that are subtle and refined, yet complex.”
Visitors can see the work in progress themselves with a visit to the Yamazaki Distillery in suburban Kyoto, a short train journey from Osaka. “One of the main processes to producing Japanese whisky is our blending technique. By varying the ingredients (malt, yeast), equipment (fermenter, distiller, barrel), and process conditions, we are producing various kinds of whisky and blending them. This approach has been applied to not only blended whisky but also to single malt,” explains Fukuyo.
Water is paramount in whisky making, so the Yamazaki Distillery is positioned where the Katsura, Uji and Kizu Rivers meet. The climate is also humid here, which is a key factor when maturing the spirit. The distillery maintains a large array of pot stills, in different shapes to produce different flavours. And finally, they order white oak from the US, Spanish oak from Europe, and Japanese oak (Mizunara) from home to make their own casks in the on-site cooperage. Visitors can wander the cask room and then try unblended whiskies not available for sale.
Of course, the distilleries couldn’t have predicted 30 or more years ago that their creations would be the toast of the whisky world, so stock is short and sells out quickly. Still, their success has paved the way for smaller Japanese distilleries to carve out a space for themselves, and there have been solid offerings from makers such as Venture Whiskyin Chichibu, Mars Shinshu in southern Nagano Prefecture, and Kirin’s Fuji Gotemba location. “Japan has succeeded to produce its own whisky even though it’s not a traditional production area such as the ones where Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and Canadian whisky were born,” says Fukuyo. “I think that this success encourages people in the world who want to face the challenge to produce their own whisky.”
The InterContinental Osaka serves Suntory Hibiki in their Adee bar, including, at the time of writing, the extremely rare Hibiki 30. For more personal experiences in Osaka, consider booking Club InterContinental at InterContinental Osaka, where the team will share their insider knowledge with you on where to find the best whisky, and many more.