While Japanese distilleries were originally based on imported knowledge and skill from Scotland, they aren’t simply making Scotch in Japan.
There are many unique elements to the production of Japanese whisky, and that’s part of the reason the distinctive drams that result have had the whole whisky world so enthralled.
Simple by definition
Japanese whisky is simply whisky from Japan. If any portion of the whisky in a bottle comes distilled or bottled by a distillery in Japan, it’s Japanese whisky.
The way Japanese whisky is made
Malted barley – often peated and imported from Scotland – and other grains are used to make Japanese whisky. These are either distilled twice in pot stills or, for grain whiskies designated for blends, run through continuous column stills.
The barrels used for ageing include ex-bourbon American oak and used sherry casks. Japanese oak (mizunara) is also used, imparting a sandalwood incense-like flavour to the whisky, while Suntory has been known to use umeshu (plum wine) casks.
Japanese whisky “style”
The main distinction between Japanese whisky and Scotch is that, in Japan, each company is self-reliant. Where Scotland's distilleries often exchange whisky to create blends, Japanese distilleries do not.
This means that each Japanese distiller must be a master of every single whisky used for its expressions. The need for internal diversification means many types of stills, barrels, and methods are employed.
It also explains why big producers such as Suntory have strategically scattered their distilleries in diversified climates.
Yamazaki is a case in point. It produces up to 70 styles of malt whisky in-house accounting for seven types of stills, five types of casks, and two types of fermentation. That doesn’t even include the peated malt, which it distils separately with some combination of the above variables. Sister distillery Hakushu is capable of producing 40 styles.
Suntory could then theoretically contribute up to 110 of its own unique malt whiskies into a given blend. It also makes its own grain whisky, with several styles produced at its Chita distillery. It has also installed a currently experimental column still for the same purpose at Hakushu.
If you walk through the still house at either Yamazaki or Hakushu, you will see stills of different shapes and sizes, from squat and bulbous to taller and more angular, all capable of producing different styles.
So, while Suntory has a house style, which it describes as “subtle, refined, yet complex”, it’s not based on a single still shape or an individual malt’s characteristics. Therefore, It is all about the blend and the blenders.
Japanese distillers don’t consider whisky just as production, but as an art.
The blended whiskies showcase a mastery of the art of blending and has cultural influence as well. Blending has the benefit of making Japanese whisky relatively food-friendly.
Japanese whisky is usually lighter and much mellower in style than that of other whisky, and it has to do with the Japanese desire to consume whisky with food. Refined, light, mellow whisky with an earthy undertone is a sublime fit with Japanese cuisine.
Pristine water of life
Mother nature decides 50 percent of the character of whisky.
Any distiller would tell you that water quality affects the taste of whisky and influences the fermentation process.
A visit to Hakushu’s water source over a dangling walking bridge reveals surreal crystal-clear water. Originating as snowmelt from Mount Kaikoma, it takes 10-15 years of natural granite filtering before the water reaches the Ojira Rivera.
Suntory has even taken Hakushu’s water to Yamazaki to produce whisky there, and vice versa. It found that Hakushu water used at Yamazaki “gave the Hakushu character” to the whisky produced.
Japanese whisky culture and tastes
The emphasis placed on water quality is a fundamental component of the same overarching theme – respecting nature and drawing the best characteristics from it, creating a true culture of Japanese whisky.
Tying into Japanese culture also extends to matching Japanese taste preferences. While it’s a large generalization, overall the category of Japanese whisky is known for a softer, more nuanced style of whisky, one that is floral and fragrant.
Japanese people dislike that “drastic quality in taste” – something that Suntory found out the hard way with the release of their first whisky in 1929. Called Shirofuda or “white label” it fell on its face; it was too smoky…people didn’t like it at all.
Suntory then shifted gears to pursue a true Japanese flavour – milder, more balanced.
The ways of drinking Japanese whisky
The majority of Japanese whisky comes with a premium price tag. That might lead you to enjoy it straight, over ice, or with a splash of water, but don't exclude it from cocktails.
In Japan, the simple whisky highball is a hit. It's often treated with ritualistic attention in bars: from hand-cut ice allowed to melt slowly in the glass before pouring the whisky, to an ultra-slow pour of soda. The highball is partially responsible for the Japanese whisky revival in the early 2000s.
That said, time to check out some locally available authentic Japanese whisky that will give you all your money’s worth.
With water from a pristine source, Kaicho Whisky was developed on the slopes of Japan’s tallest and most iconic mountain – Mount Fuji.
Blending carefully selected unprocessed whiskies and pure, natural spring water, Tenjaku Blended Whisky features an agreeably pure, mellow flavour.