When most people think of whisky, they think of Scotland. But Japanese whisky is quickly gaining a reputation for being some of the best in the world. In your search for the best Japanese whisky, it’s ideal to start at the beginning to understand how and why this unique drink came about.
In this blog post, we will explore the rich history of Japanese whisky, discuss some interesting facts about it, and list some notable brands. So sit back, relax, and enjoy learning about this delicious spirit!
The History of Japanese Whisky Brands
Japanese whisky is the result of the passion of two men born over a century ago. Shinjiro Torii, an importer of Western liquors and wine-maker, and Masataka Taketsuru, a Scots-trained whisky distiller, came together in 1923 to build the Yamazaki Distillery. The plan was to make whisky that would suit the Japanese palate.
While the Yamazaki Distillery is where the Japanese whisky we drink today originates, whisky, or whisky-like drinks, stretch back even further into Japan’s history. The Siberian American Expeditionary Force members reported drinking a whisky made in Japan in late 1918. The brand at that time was named Queen George.
Japanese whisky brands came to international attention in 2001 when Nikka’s 10-Year Yoichi single malt was honored at the Whisky Magazine awards with “Best of the Best.” Nikka is a company that grew from a distillery founded by Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru’s quest to create the best Japanese whisky, started in 1919 in Glasgow, was finally recognized 80 years later.
Interesting Japanese Whisky Facts
- The site for the Yamazaki Distillery is known for its fine waters. In the 16th century, it was chosen as a tea room site by Sen no Rikyu, considered one of the most influential figures in Japanese tea culture.
- Shijiro Torii achieved his dream of a “flavor suited to Japanese tastes” in 1937 with the release of Suntory Whisky Kakubin in its distinctive square bottle.
- Japan’s Karuizawa distillery began production in 1956 and closed its doors in 2011. The remaining casks from the distillery have been bottled, and these high-end whiskies regularly break auction records. A 52-year-old bottle sold for USD 140,000 in 2017.
- The Suntory brand is famous for its social and environmental programs. The 1960s and 1970s saw the company’s cultural programs beginning with the Suntory Museum of Art and the “Save the Birds” campaign. The company continues to be a respectful and environmentally-friendly one, engaging in many green initiatives.
- The Suntory Hall, a symbol of classical music in Japan, was called Herbert von Karajan, one of the great conductors of the 20th century, a “jewel box of sound.”
Notable Japanese Whisky Brands
These are just some of the household Japanese whisky brands that you might want to familiarize yourself with if you aren’t yet:
Suntory - This brand grew from Shinjiro Torii’s original distillery in Yamazaki. Its first official release was Suntory Whisky Shirofuda in 1929.
Nikka - This is an award-winning brand that brought Japanese whisky to the international stage. Established by Masataka Taketsuru after ending his 10-year contract with Yamazaki.
Karuizawa - Closed in 2011, the remaining casks from this distillery are now sold as high-end, collectible whiskies.
Akkeshi - A relative newcomer to whisky, this distillery began operating in 2016. The northern location of the distillery is similar to that of Scotland, giving the Sarorunkamuy (“white crane”) single malt flavor “that lingers on the palate as you sip.”
Raving Reviews About Japanese Whiskey
With the explosion of Japanese whisky into the international market, certain varieties and flavors of whisky available have increased dramatically. Spices in Japanese whisky can often be quite prominent.
One reviewer of Mars Le Papillon describes the palate as “Hot! Chili’s, fresh ginger, wasabi.” Others note that Japanese whiskies have a long history of being used as mixers. Hakushu single-malt would, according to one reviewer, “make a fantastic Highball.”
Familiar scents one might find in Japanese whiskies include vanilla, licorice, and honey. Some use more fruity aromas and flavors, while others aim for the whisky's smokier side. Reviewers also note the difficulty in getting some of the brands outside of Japan, making tracking them down online a much more reliable option.
What is the Best Japanese Whisky?
While there’s a wide range of Japanese whiskies available, only a few top all lists. Suntory’s Yamazaki label, either 12 or 25-year-old, tops some lists as the best of the last few years. Nikka, too, ranks high on many lists. The Coffey Grain made mainly from corn and their smokey Taketsuru Pure Malt are two of the distillery’s best-regarded bottles. With their long histories, it’s unsurprising that these two prominent companies rate highly.
The Mars Shinshu distillery also rates prominently on a lot of best-of lists. Boasting the “highest altitude of any distillery in the country,” such blends as the Iwai Tradition Wine Cask Finish or the Mars Asagi Madara pack exciting surprises for your nose and your palate.
Already making waves with its Chichibu US Edition 2020 Peated single malt, a recent addition to the Japanese whisky landscape is Chichibu, founded in 2008. A minimal number of these bottles were released, making the tequila not only pleasant to imbibe but also highly collectible.
Japanese whisky has a long and varied history, which is only matched by the delicious flavors that come from these unique whiskies. If you’ve never had the chance to try this nuanced spirit before, we highly recommend doing so – you won’t be disappointed!
We hope you enjoyed this post and found it informative. Be sure to check out our other blogs for more interesting content on all things alcohol-related.
Tom Miller is a writer, musician, teacher, and all-around ne’er do well. He has written on comics, queer issues, and psychedelic medicines. When not writing, he can be found recording music or gardening.