Book Review: Drinking Japan
Cocktail Menu: Jimmy at The James in New York City

Japanese Whisky Backgrounder

This November I visited Japan courtesy of Suntory whisky. It was an amazing trip and I've got a lot to share over a few blog posts. 

  Hakushu Distillery still3_tn

The History of Whisky in Japan

After US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry helped open Japan to the West in the 1850s, there was a trend of the Japanese making fake foreign products including whisky. These were not whisky. 

But in 1918 Masatake Taketsuru, a Japanese chemist, visited Scotland and trained at several distilleries. After he returned to Japan, Shinjiro Torii (I would guess his name is the basis of the company name Suntory) provided the funds to start a Scottish-style distillery in Japan. 

They broke ground on the Yamazaki distillery in 1923, first distilled in 1924, and released their first whisky in 1929. 

A decade later, Taketsuru left Suntory and started Nikka, releasing their first whisky in 1940. Thus Taketsuru is the founder of the two great rivals in Japanese whisky today. 

Fifty years after founding the Yamazaki distillery, Suntory built the Hakushu distillery in 1973, distilling in 1974. They also own a grain distillery on another site.  

Hakushu Distillery distillery building_tn

Whisky in Japan

As it was in the rest of the world, most Japanese whisky was blended whisky, a blend of column-distilled grain whisky with pot-distilled and more flavorful single malt whisky (usually from many different distilleries blended together). Single malts (made from all malted barley at a single distillery) were all the rage in the 1980s with the good economy, then consumption fell off, and then it came back again. Still, as it is in the rest of the world, blends are king. 

A big difference between Japan and Scotland is how those blended whiskies are made. In Scotland, even rival whisky companies trade whiskies with each other to make their blends. In Japan they do not. 

 So in order to have a range of different tasting whiskies to make up their blends, the Japanese install many different shapes of pot stills at their distilleries. Suntory opened the second distillery, Hakushu, to provide them with even more flavors for their blends. And as you'll see in upcoming posts, they also use a variety of barrel types to age the whisky.

Yamazaki Distillery Kyoto warehouse 2_tn

Get Camper's Book: Tonic Water AKA G&T WTF.