The Japanese whisky industry has recently undergone a lot of changes. Read on to learn everything you need to know about whisky from the land of the rising sun.
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HISTORY OF JAPANESE WHISKY:
Whisky first came into Japan with American Commodore Matthew Perry when he sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 on a mission to trade with the Japanese. As Japan slowly opened up to trade, wine and spirits began to pour into the country.
Japan’s whisky industry begins with two people: Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii.
In 1918, Masataka Taketsuru, known as ‘The Father of Japanese Whisky’, ventured to Scotland alone to learn the art of whisky making. Taketsuru was from a family of saké brewers and already a trained chemist.
After enrolling in the University of Glasgow, Taketsuru enrolled in chemistry courses and did apprenticeships with three Scottish distilleries. He finally returned home in 1920.
In the meantime, Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical wholesaler, began importing liquor and spirits. But Torii had bigger plans: he wanted to make a true, authentic Japanese whisky for the Japanese people. Torii decided to build the very first Japanese whisky distillery in Yamazaki.
The story goes, Torii got wind of Taketsuru and recruited him as the distillery executive. And just like that, we have Japanese whisky. Taketsuru eventually left Yamazaki and created Yoichi distillery. Over time, these companies evolved in the 20th century to become Suntory and Nikka which are now the two biggest brands of Japanese whisky icons.
The Japanese whisky boom
In the 1980s, whisky surged in popularity and the annual consumption of whisky skyrocketed to around three litres per person.
The Japanese also began importing more whisky, and domestic brands increased to satisfy the demand. Many saké distilleries converted to whisky distilleries to capitalise on Japan’s epic thirst for whisky, too.
When did Japanese whisky get international recognition?
Japanese whisky brands truly entered the global whisky world stage in 2001 when Whisky Magazine awarded Nikka’s 10-Year Yoichi Single Malt the ‘Best of the Best.’
Two years later, Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt whisky became the first Japanese whisky to take out a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge. At the time, the ISC was widely considered the most authoritative and prestigious liquor competition in the world.
Since then, Japanese whiskies have excelled at award shows and whisky lovers from all over want to get their hands on Japanese whisky.
What Makes Japanese Whisky Special?
Japanese distilleries typically follow Scottish methods — hence no ‘e' in 'whisky'. But there are key differences that set Japanese whiskies apart.
- Japan’s distinct seasons affect the maturation process: cold winters slow down the ageing process while humid summers speed up the process.
- They also use a variety of casks, the most well-known is the Mizunara cask, Japanese oak, that is indigenous to the country.
- Japanese distillers often use a variety of strains to accentuate the flavours produced during the fermentation process.
- The Japanese also use different production methods. For example, bamboo filtration is sometimes used instead of charcoal filtration.
- Japan’s distilleries are also at a higher altitude. This means the water has a lower boiling point. This allows for a bigger scope of aromas and flavour profiles in the whisky.
- Japanese distilleries often draw their water from mountain springs, and this mineral-rich water can contribute to the characteristic sweetness of Japanese whisky.
- Japanese whisky is created to pair with Japanese food and culture. The whisky style is often more delicate than the robust Scottish single malts and yet is rich with character and complexity.
- The Japanese also hold blended whiskies in as high regard as single malts. This can be put down to the cultural value of balance and harmony.
How do I know if I’m drinking Japanese whisky?
Before the labelling regulations (we’ll get to that), Japanese whiskies weren’t always exactly what they said they were on the label.
Up until 2021, there were no legal standards of what defines a ‘Japanese whisky.’ So some Japanese whiskies were a blend of whiskies from Scotland, Canada, and other countries imported for blending.
But as of 2021, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association introduced strict regulations that require anything labelled as ‘Japanese Whisky’ be mashed, fermented, distilled, matured, and bottled in Japan.
As well, Japanese whisky brands that do not meet these standards cannot use labelling that evokes Japanese cities, people, events or other places or ideas associated with the country.
Any whisky that existed before the new regulations were imposed is only allowed to remain on the market until the end of March, 2024.
You can read more about the labelling laws here: No more Fake Japanese Whisky Following Brand New Labelling Regulations
Speaking to Forbes, multi-award-winning Master Blender Jota Tanaka, (creator of our Fuji Japanese Whisky) says these regulations will be helpful to both the industry and whisky drinkers in its transparency so that consumers will be more aware of what they’re drinking. “It’s going to help us as an industry a lot,” he says. “I believe that the standards are very clear and help us create a healthy whisky ecosystem.”
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