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The History and Art of Japanese Whisky

Japan has made its contributions to the world of food and beverages, having given us sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, saki and beers from makers such as Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory.

Hanami festival celebrating the season of spring
Hanami festival celebrating the season of spring
However in recent years, the results from Whisky Magazine's blind tastings, on more than one occasion, have had Japanese single malts scoring higher than their Scottish counterparts, so we at Grapes & Grains, decided to explore the history, style and taste of Japanese whiskies.

A Brief History

Whisky production in Japan began around 1870, but the first commercial distillery was established in 1923. Broadly speaking the style of Japanese whisky is more similar to that of Scotch whisky and thus the spelling typically follows the Scottish convention (omitting the letter 'e'). Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru are considered two of the most influential figures in the history of Japanese whisky.

Grain mash fermentation
Grain mash fermentation
Masataka Taketsuru was a Japanese chemist and businessman. He was born to a family that owned a sake brewery and attended the University of Glasgow in 1918 to study organic chemistry. He managed to find work at a few Scottish distilleries, where he meticulously recorded every aspect of the distilling process. His notes would provide the foundation of Japan’s whisky industry.

Shinjiro Torii was a successful merchant who imported western liquor. However he was not satisfied with this success as he wanted to create a Japanese whisky for Japanese people. Torii decided to build the first Japanese whisky distillery, in Yamazaki, on the outskirts of Kyoto.

Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru as a distillery executive. This business would eventually grow into Suntory. In 1934, Taketsuru went independent and launched his own distillery, which would come to be called Nikka.

Suntory and Nikka are the two most well known distilleries in Japan. Both of these produce blended as well as single malt whiskies.

Art, Style and Philosophy

Although Japanese methods of whisky distilling are taken from the Scottish blueprint, they have evolved into a uniquely Japanese expression over time. Though bold and complex, the underlying character is a resemblance of Japanese philosophy: harmony, balance and profound respect for nature.

Japanese Zen Garden a symbol of harmony
Japanese Zen Garden a symbol of harmony
Japanese nature is blessed with many expressions, such as deep forests, abundant greenery, sea influence, steep mountains and pure waters.

The best Japanese artisans are known to emphasize the beauty and spirit found within nature and each ingredient while creating a harmony between different flavors without adding or taking away their individual essence.

There is more attention paid to the body and the texture in Japan than in many other countries. Japanese whiskies are characterized by a delicate, balanced, suave, mouth-coating feel, that is never really aggressive.

Tasting Notes

At one of our Grapes & Grains whisky tasting event, we tried a few Japanese whiskies, in the Whiskey Cellar at Jack Rose DC.

Whiskey Cellar at Jack Rose DC
Whiskey Cellar at Jack Rose DC
Here are the 4 different whiskies we tasted, along with the tasting notes :

Yamazaki (Suntory) 12 yr - This 12 year old from Yamazaki was the first seriously marketed Japanese single malt whisky that came into the market in 1984.

It has a pleasant floral character with a little tropical fruit. The palate is smooth and soft with good sweetness, subtle winter spice with notes of cinnamon and a warm medium finish.

Yamazaki (Suntory) 18 yr - An award winning Japanese single malt, Yamazaki's legendary 18 year old has won the International Spirits Challenge Gold and a Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for many years.

It has characteristic sweetness of dried fruits like raisin and apricot, cinnamon spice, and hint of dark chocolate that comes from aging in sherry cask. Complex but balanced, the finish is of good length, mature with plenty of oak from long aging, fruit and some citrus zest.

Taketsuru (Nikka) Pure Malt 12 yr - This is a blend of the two malt whisky distilleries Yoichi and Miyagikyo named in honor of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka.

It is characterized by a deep and flavorful richness. Red fruit notes transition to honey and wood spices, with just a trace of smokiness to pull it all together.

Yoichi (Nikka) Single Malt 15 yr - This is a single malt whisky distilled and matured at the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido, birthplace of Nikka whisky which was inspired by scotch traditions and methodologies. Yoichi was chosen due to its similar environmental conditions to Scotland, so this single malt has a lot of similarity with a scotch produced closer to the coast, specifically the briny flavors delivered by the sea breeze during the aging process. The Yoichi distillery and the 15 yr single malt has won awards at the International Spirits Challenge.

It is bold and distinctive, complex and smoky with tastes of ripe fruit such as apple and pear and hint of spices such as nutmeg and ginger.

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