Japan gains worldwide attention for its award-winning whiskies

The founder of Nikka Whisky traveled to Scotland in 1918 to learn the whisky distilling process.


By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 22, 2014

The Japanese topped the Scots for a major whisky honor, to the surprise of many who know Scotch only by reputation — and practically no one who regularly drinks high-quality whisky.

Suntory’s 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask whisky earned top billing in the influential “Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015” for a drink of “near indescribable genius.”

Media worldwide wrote stories asking how this could possibly happen to Scotland, which fell out of the top five and got beat out for Murray’s second- and third-place spots by Kentucky bourbon and rye. The attention drew comparisons to a famous 1976 Paris wine tasting, where lightly regarded California wines trounced French offerings in a blind judging.

The reality is that there is still plenty of good whisky in Scotland, but Japan’s best whiskies have been every bit Scotland’s equals for years. It’s simply a question of personal preference.

Japan’s expertise leaves U.S. servicemembers based in the country with an opportunity to try these whiskies at a fraction of what they cost as imports. For example, Nikka’s Taketsuru blended malt costs about $37 in Japan, or $73 at U.S. retailer Total Wine.

The giant of Japan’s whisky industry is Suntory, which got even larger when it acquired Jim Beam this year.

Some companies see the quality of their products head south after massive growth, but there is no evidence of that at Suntory, judging by its annual international awards. Its single-malt Yamazaki brand is prized; however, its 17- and 21-year-old Hibiki blends, about $70 and $135 at the Narita duty-free shop, are some of the most complex yet easy-drinking whiskies on the Japanese market.

“The key to the Japanese success is that they never got cocky,” said Mike Murphy, import manager for Japan trading company Whisk-e. “They never thought their whisky was good enough.”

Murphy first came to Japan as a Navy sailor; 30 years later, he’s seen the industry transformed.

The big Japanese whisky distilleries are great at understanding their clientele, Murphy explained.

Through the 1970s, they knew their customers were going to drink whisky with soda, or over lots of ice — unlike drinkers in countries who typically drank high-quality scotch straight or with a splash of water. Consequently, distillers made whisky that would stand up to being watered down.

As Japan boomed in the 1980s, business travelers began discovering its best drinks. Distillers responded, buying peat from Scotland and studying that country’s techniques more closely.

As they learned the European ways, they began adding their own touches.

The introduction of mizunara oak casks gave several whiskies distinctive flavors.

For example, Suntory’s current Yamazaki Mizunara carries a lingering vanilla taste, along with some spiciness and cinnamon.

That said, Japan’s whiskies don’t conform to one style.

Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory’s chief blender, says the thing that unites Japan’s best whiskies is devotion to high-quality ingredients.

“Very pure and clean water makes very sophisticated spirits,” Fukuyo said. “The Japanese consumer has very sophisticated taste.”

Obsessive attention to detail is also critical. Fukuyo displayed photographs of a trip to Spain, where he visited the lumberjacks cutting the wood for sherry casks that would hold his whisky.

There are a handful of other major players in Japanese whisky, including Nikka, which began after its foundersailed to Scotland in 1918, returned to Hokkaido with a Scottish bride and opened a distillery.

A television show based on the couple is now an NHK hit.

Ichiro’s Malt is what the cool kids are drinking, though you’re less likely to find it at a typical izakaya in Japan. Ichiro’s rarer bottles are selling for thousands of dollars at auctions in China.

Mars is another smaller distillery with a cult following, while beer giant Kirin runs a lesser-known distillery in Gotemba. If all the talk of vanillin and wood casks makes whisky sound too complicated, it’s only because of the passion of its devotees.

If you’re new to whisky and can’t readily identify the scents and tastes in the distiller’s notes, that’s OK too. For that matter, Murphy and plenty of longtimewhisky fans have no problem with  Jack Daniel’s, or a whisky and soda in between drams of Japanese single malts.

Definitions of whisky/whiskies can vary between nations and sometimes even between states.

What’s in a name?

Whiskey or whisky? Associated Press style dictates that the whisky spelling of this artfully distilled drink should refer only to Scotch or Canadian liquors, and all others should be referred to as whiskeys. However, in an effort to make this story easier to read — and to reduce snobbery — we decided to embrace this spelling for all.

Scotch is defined by The United Kingdom’s Scotch Whisky Act in detail. The quick version: it has to be produced in Scotland for water and malted barley, and processed at that Scottish distillery into a mash. If it’s not Scottish, it’s not really Scotch. The United States recognizes the U.K. claim on Scotch.

Irish whisky must be made in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland to be considered legitimate, according to European Union and U.S. law. There are many smaller quality distilleries, but the best known globally are Jameson and Bushmills.

Blended whiskies comprise the vast majority of the world’s supply. They are blends of whiskies and grains. They often provide excellent value. Higher-end blends are mixed to bring out the best qualities of several whiskies.

Single malt is the product of a single distillery. These are rarer than blends and tend to be more expensive, though quality blends can be just as pricey. Some single malt whiskies are also single grain whiskies.

Corn whisky is distilled from a mash of at least 80 percent corn. Unlike other whiskies, it need not be stored in an oak container, according to U.S. federal law.

Bourbon, rye, wheat and rye malt are whiskies that cannot exceed 80 percent alcohol and contain no less than 51 percent of their respective grain. Many international trade agreements consider the name Bourbon a U.S. trademark. Although it can be made anywhere in the U.S., bourbon is strongly associated with Kentucky and Tennessee.


A selection of Suntory whisky product samples was presented to members of the press during a briefing and tasting session at Foreign Press Center Japan on Nov. 13.

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