The Beginner's Guide to Japanese Whisky

Japan is a country that takes great pride in tradition and innovation. It is famous for a lot of things––from cars to culinary arts, even technology. But do you know that Japan is also celebrated for their whisky? In fact, in recent years, Japanese whisky beats Scotland to win world’s best whiskey title in a number of international liquor competitions.  What makes Japanese whisky one of the most superior in the world?

What is Japanese Whisky?

Japanese whisky is produced in much of the same way as Scotch whisky. It is made up of ingredients usually imported from Scotland such as malt or peated barley aged in wooden barrels. As a result, both Japanese and Scotch whiskies tend to be drier and smokier than their Irish and American counterparts which are sweeter.

Additionally, it’s spelled as ‘whisky’ for both Japanese and Scotch varieties; and ‘whiskey’ when referring to American bourbon and Irish rye.  However, the similarity ends there. While Japanese whisky is modelled after Scotch whisky, the distilling process is uniquely Japanese, from its water source, structure of the distillery stills, as well as the type of wooden barrels used.  

Japanese whisky is also fairly new in the global market as it was traditionally only sold domestically. Recently, Japanese whisky has been winning accolades worldwide and the demand for it is increasing.

Unfortunately, while Japanese whisky is gradually gaining popularity outside of Japan, supplies are still limited and quite hard to get.

A Brief History

Whisky was first produced in Japan in the late 1800s. It wasn’t commercially sold until 1924 when the first distillery was opened in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto.

One of its founders, Masataka Taketsuru, studied distilling processes in Scotland and eventually brought his knowledge back to his home country. Along with Shinjiro Torii, founder of Kotobukiya (later Suntory), Taketsuru helped establish Yamazaki Distillery. In the 1930’s Taketsuru formed his own company–– Dai Nippon Kaju, presently known as Nikka.

Since then, there have been several distilleries producing whisky in Japan. Suntory and Nikka, however, remain the two most well-known and biggest whisky producers in the country.

Why are Japanese whiskies expensive?

How expensive can a bottle of Japanese whisky fetch these days? Recently, a 50-year-old bottle of Japanese whisky sold for a record breaking $299,000 at an auction.

Much of the appeal of Japanese whisky is a result of many things––its delicious flavor; gorgeous packaging; the whisky’s unique distillation processes; and the rich, almost mystical history behind its production. Japanese whisky is so mysterious; it has become a coveted item for liquor collectors.      

Add these to the fact that Japanese whisky has recently been making waves internationally for its excellent craftsmanship and world-class quality. It’s no wonder that there is now a bigger demand than supply for Japanese whisky in the global market.

Despite its relatively young history and its “Scottish” beginnings, Japanese whisky has proven to be one of the most unique and exclusive whiskies in the world. Japan has produced internationally recognized whiskies that rivalled even the best bottles from Scotland, the world’s largest and most famous whisky producer.

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