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Japanese Whisky: An Introduction

As most you already know, I’m originally from Scotland. The relationship between Scotland and Japan historically is actually pretty colourful and detailed. If any of you were fortunate enough to catch any of NHK’s recent morning drama series “Ma-San” then you will know that the Scots and the Japanese are united in their love of one thing: a good glass of whisky.

As Scotland’s principal export and the subject of a great deal of advertising and promotion both at home and abroad, it is fair to say that whisky is a cornerstone of the Scottish economy as well as a part of the Scots’ national identity. So how did it become such a big hit in Japan?

The origins of commerce between Scotland and Japan can probably best be credited to the noted merchant Thomas Blake Glover. Born in Edinburgh in 1838, Glover came to Japan in the 1850s. Originally a green tea merchant, with business interests in Shanghai as well as Japan and the UK, Glover was one of the few foreigners to support the uprising against the Tokugawa Shogunate prior to the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s.

As such, when the Shogun was deposed, and the emperor restored, Glover found himself with a number of powerful friends in the Japanese government. He eventually settled in Nagasaki and made a number of telling contributions to the formation of the modern Japanese economy, including the country’s first coal mines, its first dry dock, and the establishment of a successful shipbuilding firm that would, in the fullness of time, come to be known as the Mitsubishi Corporation.

He also, played a major hand in setting up the Japan Brewery Company, which would eventually evolve into The Kirin Brewery Company. It was in this venture, that Japan was first introduced to the marvels of Scottish Whisky. However, the drink did not immediately find a following in Japan.

It was the establishment of Kotobukiya (now called Suntory) in 1899 that set the scene for a whisky revolution. The company’s founder Shinjiro Torii initially made his money selling imported foreign liqueurs to his affluent clientele in Osaka. One of his biggest successes in the early days was Akadama Port Wine. Based on the Portuguese Oporto Wine, the drink made Torii an extremely rich man over the next 20 or so years. With this new found wealth, came the ability to experiment.

Against the advice of many of the company’s executives at the time, Torii took a chance in hiring Masataka Taketsuru, an ambitious young distillery executive who had recently returned from studying whisky techniques in Scotland. Taketsuru oversaw construction of Japan’s first domestic distillery, in Yamazaki, near Kyoto. Already viewed by many as the spiritual home of Japanese tea, Kyoto prefecture, with its famously pure waters would make the perfect base from which to build a brand. Today under the banner of Suntory, Yamazaki remains Japan’s most popular whisky label.

Photo : Lerkoz on Flickr

Building on this success, Taketsuru eventually struck out on his own, leaving Suntory in 1934 to move north to Hokkaido and set up what would eventually become Nikka, another whisky brand that remains popular to this day.

Nikka Whisky from a Barrel 2
Photo : Mark on Flickr

Over the coming decades, whisky continued to build a fanbase amongst the upper echelons of Japanese society. It wasn’t until the post-war boom years and the rapid westernization of Japan that whisky developed more of a following among the working classes. Nikka, Suntory and a number of other rivals began manufacturer lower grade whiskies, which could be produced and sold at a much lower cost.

Whilst domestic consumption continued to increase, the likes of Yamazaki, and Nikka’s Yoichi whiskies still couldn’t gain a foothold in the international market. A mixture of snobbery and sentimentality meant that whiskies produced outside of Scotland and to a lesser extent Ireland, were seldom taken seriously by critics and connoisseurs.

This all changed in 2001 however. In a decision that stunned commentators around the world, Whisky Magazine, long regarded as the international authority on high grade whiskies, awarded its “Best of the Best” gold medal award to Nikka’s 10 year old Yoichi single malt. A number of further successes followed. Indeed for every year of the last 8, Japan’s Hakushu, owned by Suntory, and Yoichi have taken turns to claim the top awards in international whisky. Yamazaki also continues to collect awards and praise around the world.

Photo : Karli Watson on Flickr

So, if you fancy a “wee dram” of the good stuff in Japan, where is the best place to start?
The Yamazaki 12 year old single malt is a favourite of several of my friends, both Japanese and foreign. It has a light flavour, that doesn’t overpower the palate like some of the heavier Scottish Whiskies like Laphroaigh can do on occasion. This makes it a good road into Japanese whisky for the uninitiated. At only 5,000 yen or so for a litre bottle, it’s as easy on the wallet as it is the taste buds.

I’ve already mentioned the classic Scottish Whisky Laphroaigh, with its distinct smokey flavour, distilled from the peat bogs of the Isle of Islay. For the longest time it was thought that this rich, smokey flavour couldn’t be replicated outside of Scotland.

However, with The Hakushu, Suntory has done just that.

Photo : Pete Slater on Flickr

Indeed you could say Suntory has “cheated” a little bit here. Whilst the fine waters used to distil the Hakushu come from Japanese gorgeous Southern Alps, the peated barley that forms the backbone of the whisky’s flavour and scent is imported from Scotland.

Nevertheless, The Hakushu is a wonderful whisky and at only 6,000 yen a bottle, it’s the perfect gift for the whisky lovers in your family.

Finally, for my last choice, a whisky that is as much a homage as it is an innovation.

Question: How does Nikka improve on its two award winning whiskies, Yoichi and Miyagikyo?

The answer, it blends them together to create Nikka Taketsuru. Named after the great man himself, this blend is surely a whisky Masataka Taketsuru would have been proud of. More sweet than smokey, Taketsuru feels like warm honey as it lightly burns its way down the throat. A rich flavour and easy taste make it well worth the 7000 yen price tag.

Photo : Dominic Lockyer on Flickr

If you’re in Japan, you can find these and many other great domestic whiskies in larger supermarkets and specialist liquor shops across Japan. Internationally, a number of these whiskies are also now available in the larger supermarket chains like Walmart and Tesco.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to join you as my current diet regimen heavily restricts the alcohol I can consume. As the great Lloyd Bridges famously once said: “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking!”

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