Japanese whiskey is a bit like that swanky cousin of yours. They dress smartly, work that cool job in the city that you don’t really understand and you only really see them on special occasions.
With a flavor as unique as Scotch and a history just as interesting, we decided to find out more. Take a look at our selection of Japanese whiskeys and explore along with us.
The birth of an upstart
Japan’s first distillery didn’t open until 1924 which makes Japanese whiskey very much the newcomer on the block. Its introduction into Japan can be traced back to one man, Shinjiro Torii, who got started importing western liquors, ports, and wines, before deciding that whiskey was the future and eventually founding Yamazaki so he could make the stuff at home on mass.
Another man, Masataka Taketsuru spent many years in Scotland, first studying Organic Chemistry and then working for various distilleries, carefully taking notes on the process, before returning to Japan in 1924, and teaming up with Torii to create the first big whiskey brand in Japan—Suntory.
A booming market
Today, Suntory is huge—the third largest distillery in the world in fact—and sits alongside Nikka, another big whiskey brand in Japan, founded coincidentally by Taketsuru after he decided to go his own way.
While mostly just domestic brands, Japanese whiskeys are starting to find their way onto liquor shelves up and down the US, thanks in part to the fact that they taste amazing. Things really changed in 2001 when the Whisky Magazine's Award proclaimed Nikka's 10-year Yoichi single malt the "Best of the Best.”
A unique taste
It's said that Japanese whiskey tastes quite a lot like Scotch—although there is fierce debate among some as to whether it is as good as Scotch, or whether this sort of comparison is even valid. The reason for the taste is the similarities in the production process. Japanese whiskey is distilled twice using pot stills and sometimes malts and peated barley are imported from Scotland.
Blended whiskeys dominate the market in Japan, like everywhere in the world, although while Scotches will mix whiskey’s from a variety of distilleries, in Japan, brands tend to own their distilleries and blend exclusively from their outputs. This does limit flavor possibilities somewhat and is said to be one of the things holding it back from true global influence, although new brands are changing this.
Beginners should look out for a Nikka Single Malt Yoichi, with a character that can be described as fruity and smokey, or Suntory Hibiki 17 Years Old, hand-blended with a sweet, nutty flavor. Drinkers looking for the very best should go for the ever-popular Nikka from the Barrel, which is fruity with hints of orange, cinnamon and cloves, and probably the most well-known of Japanese whiskeys.