By: Tod Stewart
Japan is synonymous with many things: electronics, cars, origami, sake, sushi, intricate art, Sumo wrestling and architecture. Now, if you’re willing to wait out a signiﬁcant chunk of your day for it, cheesecake. But whisky?
Even after seeing Lost in Translation many years ago (a movie featuring Bill Murray as Bob Harris, an aging movie star visiting Japan to promote Suntory whisky), the connection between Japan and whisky still didn’t really register with me. Thankfully that has since changed, and I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying numerous different Japanese whisky expressions, both at home as well as in Japan.
Today, these drams are becoming increasingly difficult to find, and when you do find one you might experi-ence a bit of sticker shock. However, as with most things Japanese, you do get what you pay for (and here I’m primarily talking about the items I have tried: sake, sushi, Japanese knives, etc.). The Japanese whiskies I’ve sampled have invariably been top-notch. And much to the chagrin of the Scots, they’ve actually been stealing accolades from the world’s top drams.
A few years back, in his World Whisky Bible 2015, industry expert Jim Murray crowned the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, from Suntory, “World Whisky of the Year.” As it turns out, nary a Scottish whisky made the top five. Since then, Japanese whiskies have continued to bag metal at competitions across the globe (in fact, they were garnering “best of” accolades as far back as 2008). If there’s any consolation to the Scottish distillers now adding tears rather than water to their tipples, it’s that, had it not been for the Scots, the Japanese would likely not be where they are today in terms of distilling.
Japan has a distilling history that may reach as far back as the 1700s. Yet it wasn’t until after the Second World War that Shinjiro Torii along with Masataka Taketsuru, established the Yamazaki Distillery, which would eventually become Suntory, near Kyoto. In 1918, Taketsuru journeyed to Scotland. He enrolled in the University of Glasgow, becoming the first Japanese person to study the art of whisky making and apprenticed at a number of famous Scottish malt distilleries before bringing his knowledge (and a wife) back to Japan.
In 1934, Taketsuru branched out on his own, establishing the Nikka Whisky company with a distillery located in Yoichi, on the island of Hokkaido, in the northern part of the country.
This area seemed, to him, to most closely replicate the Scottish landscape. Japan’s “whisky country” however, is less differentiated than those of Scotland.
“Although Japan may look like a small island on the map, if you compare it with the map of Scotland at the same scale, you will notice that the nation is much larger and is spread from North to South,” notes Naoki Tomoyoshi, International Business Development Representative for Nikka Whisky. “The climate can vary from the famous skiing resorts in Hokkaido to the beautiful beaches of Okinawa. Within this country, Nikka’s founder Masataka Taketsuru headed north in search for the ideal place for his whisky. He found the land of Yoichi to be the perfect place, a seaside location with a cool and humid climate along with an ideal water source. Then, in 1969, he founded his second distillery, Miyagikyo Distillery, in the mountainous valleys of Miyagi Prefecture, located in the northern part of Japan’s main island. His aim was to create a different style of whisky than that of Yoichi Distillery. The surrounding environment plays an important role in the maturation process, and when that is combined with the different production methods between the two distilleries, the variation of the flavors that can be created is countless.”
Gardner Dunn, Senior Brand Ambassador at Suntory Japanese Whisky, notes that rather than defined re-gions, the elevation of the Suntory distilleries and the subsequent differences in temperature have more of an impact on the final products.
“Yamazaki, outside Kyoto, sits at around 160 feet above sea level,” he points out. “Hakushu is one of the highest distilleries, at roughly 2,313 feet in Yamanashi prefecture. The difference in temperature between the two dictates the use of certain sized barrels to optimize maturation.” Dunn explains that as the temperature drops, the rate of maturation slows. Therefore, spirits matured in warmer climates – rum, for example – devel-op more quickly than northern spirits, largely due to the rate of evaporation.
The proximity to the sea — just a kilometre from the Sea of Japan — and the influence of the salty ocean air, appreciably contributes to maritime tang of Nikka’s Yoichi line of whiskies. I recently sampled a dram or two of Nikka Yoichi (No Age Statement) Single Malt, which seemed to combine the warm, toffee, malt and hon-eyed tones of a Highland malt with the smoky, lemony and in this case, rather intensely briny notes more typ-ical of something like Bunnahabhain’s Ceobanach — a peated offering from a distillery that typically doesn’t use peat.
The peat used in Nikka’s whiskies was sourced locally until the 1970s. Today the distillery uses imported barley peated to the required levels. Dunn confirms that Suntory, as well, imports barley from Scotland that has been peated to a specified degree. As well, both Nikka and Suntory strive to use the purest water available.
“The main source of water for Nikka’s Yoichi Distillery is from the mountain springs and surrounding rivers, in particular the Yoichi River,” Tomoyoshi points out, adding that water for the Miyagikyo Distillery is sourced from the Nikkawa River. Dunn reveals that both of Suntory’s distilleries use unique water sources. “Our beau-tiful, soft water is optimal for producing [our] style of whisky.”
In terms of casks, Suntory and Nikka have somewhat similar approaches. “We both import and make our casks,” informs Tomoyoshi. “We have a cooperage in each distillery maintaining casks of different sizes and types of wood. We also source various types of casks from around the world, including ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. All refurbishing and re-charring of the casks are done in-house in our cooperages.”
Suntory uses a range, from ex-bourbon to American white oak and Spanish oloroso sherry casks. The company’s in-house cooperage also fashions barrels from Japanese Mizunara oak. “It is a very tight-grained oak that only grows in the North Island,” Dunn explains, noting that it matures very slowly and imparts notes of oriental incense, spice and coconut to the finished whisky.
When it comes to whisky, distillers know that the shape and size are crucial in forming the character of the finished product. The copper pot stills used by Nikka Whisky were crafted in Japan and are of varying sizes. “All stills are slightly different from each other, which enable us to produce a wider variety of styles,” informs Tomoyoshi. “In general, the stills at Yoichi Distillery are smaller, with a straight neck and descending line arm. The stills at Miyagikyo are larger, with a bulge neck and ascending line arm.”
Suntory operates two sets of eight distinctly shaped stills. As any distiller will attest, the size and shape of a still significantly impacts the spirit it produces, and the varying sizes employed by Nikka and Suntory no doubt play a role in crafting the unique character of the individual whiskies.
While Japan’s whiskies have experienced a spike in popularity, the industry itself, like those in other countries, has weathered ups and downs. The whisky boom of the 1970s and early 1980s gave way to a slump in domestic whisky sales by the late ’80s, resulting in the closure of several distilleries. However, the international acclaim Japanese whiskies have since garnered has led to a resurgence in interest. A lot of interest, in fact. In the case of Nikka, a few factors combined to create the perfect storm surge of popularity. A surge so strong that it resulted in the discontinuation of age-statement whiskies.
“We delisted most of our age-statement expressions in 2016,” confirms Tomoyoshi confirms. “This was due to many factors, such as the Nikka 80th anniversary in 2014 along with strong – yet organic – growth in foreign markets. Above all, the most impactful factor was the domestic Nikka fever caused by the NHK TV series Massan. This was unpredictable and sudden.”
Massan was an Asadora – a “morning drama” – that ran from September 29th, 2014, until March 28th, 2015. Based on the lives of Masataka Taketsuruand and his Scottish wife Jessie Roberta “Rita” Cowan, it detailed the creation of Nikka Whisky…and landed a huge audience not only for the series, but for Nikka’s whiskies as well.
Though they may currently be a little scarce in some international markets, Japanese whiskies are worth pursuing. They offer the best qualities of their Scottish counterparts — including complexity, harmony and great depth of character — along with certain exotic aspects that distinguish them as unique, different, and worthy of the accolades they have garnered both in the Far East and around the globe.