Japanese Whisky Backgrounder
November 15, 2011
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.
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.
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.
Good 101, Camper.
I hope that the nice Suntory folks gave you a good amount of tasting ops while you were there. Even though Liberty is well-known for our American whiskey collection, at this point I think that the best whisk(e)y distilled, blended and/or aged today is in Japan. There's a level of astounding complexity that is a central feature of the whiskies made by Suntory & Nikka (amongst others) that quite simply is not available to other regions' whiskies. Is it the Mizinera? The yeasts? The water? The unparalleled level of care through the whole process? I don't know, but what I do know is that they are doing something very, very special there, and I'm glad that you're clueing in your readership.
See you in Seattle next time that you're in town, and we'll take you on a glass by glass tour of our Japanese whisky collection, which is I am told one of the deepest in the US of A.
Posted by: Andrew Friedman - Liberty (Seattle) | November 16, 2011 at 03:40 AM
To say Commodore Perry 'helped open Japan' is a curious phrase, the Japanese might use slightly more loaded language!
Other than that, a great primer for Japanese whisky!
Posted by: Jacob Briars | November 16, 2011 at 10:58 AM
I've only heard the American version of that history. As you can tell, we're not big on learning from the past.
Posted by: Camper English | November 16, 2011 at 11:05 AM