Japanese whisky has made quite a splash in the whisky scene over the last few decades and continues to gain popularity. Bill Murray’s character in the 2003 film Lost In Translation––a famous actor visiting Tokyo to promote whisky--played no small part in sparking the curiosities of the West. Whatever the reason, Japanese whisky has become one of the fastest-growing liquor categories across the globe.
Like other types of whisky, Japanese versions have a unique history and distinct production methods. Understanding these can help you appreciate what went into crafting the spirit, when you are drinking whisky from Japan.
The guide below will tell you everything you need to know about the rise of Japanese whiskey. It provides a brief history, including its evolution over the last 100 years. It also covers the major distilleries and their production methods, and concludes with some recommendations for both the seasoned connoisseur and the newcomer.
A Note On “Whisky” Spelling
You may have noticed that we have been writing “whisky” without the “e.” That is the correct spelling for Japanese, Scotch, and Canadian whiskies. “Whiskey” (with the “e”) is specific to American whiskies, including bourbons and other types.
History of Japanese Whisky
While the Japanese have been making sake for thousands of years, whisky is relatively new. There is some evidence that people began making it in the late 1800s, but commercial production did not start until the 1920s.
Leading up to that time, Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical wholesaler, began importing Western wines and spirits. He opened the country’s first distillery, Yamazaki, in 1923. Torii hired Masataka Taketsura who, in 1918, had traveled to Scotland to study the chemistry of whisky-making.
Torii and Taketsura founded the company that would become Suntory. It is still the most prominent Japanese distillery today.
What Makes Japanese Whisky Distinct?
Although there are many similarities to Scotch and other types of whisky, there are many unique traits of Japanese whisky. Here are the main factors that distinguish it.
Much like other distillers, Japanese whisky producers use barley. But unlike Scotch, some Japanese whiskies use a combination of barley and rice, or only rice, in production. This is reminiscent of many American whiskies that use corn as a substitute (or the main ingredient) in making malt.
The barley combination soaks in water to convert the starches in the grain to sugars. The grains are then crushed to produce a malt or “mash.” Yeast is added to the mash to convert the sugars to alcohol through fermentation.
Another way that Japanese whiskies are distinct from Scotch (and other) whiskies is that they are less peated. Peat--a turf that forms from decaying vegetation and other organic matter--is widely used in Scotch production. It helps dry the barley during the malting process and leaves behind a distinct smoky taste and aroma in the remnants.
Some Japanese whisky distilleries use peat in the malting process but tend to use substantially less of it. The level of peatiness in a Japanese whisky varies among producers, but it is not a standard you should expect.
Also, the Japanese are renowned for their use of additives to create unique flavors in their whisky. Fruit and essences like rose petals or cherry blossoms are popular choices.
The distillation process also sets Japanese whisky apart. For starters, many producers use unique stills.
Scotch makers mostly use pot stills. These are the most basic type, where a large kettle is heated heat from the bottom, evaporating off the alcohol, which is then condensed back into a liquid.
Japanese distillers often use “column” or “continuous” stills. These typically comprise two columns that contain several compartments separated by perforated plates. These allow the distilled vapor to rise, where it is captured and condensed.
Unlike pot stills, column stills do not require the distillation of mash in batches. As the name suggests, they continually reheat and restart the process.
One advantage of this is the ability to produce purer alcohol. It also contains the ability to yield a higher alcohol content not achievable with basic pot stills.
Note that this does not in itself make the spirit “better,” but it is a factor in the uniqueness of Japanese whiskies. (Many American distillers use hybrid stills--with a pot and columns--that contribute to distinct outcomes.)
Finally, while some Japanese distilleries use traditional methods of filtering, including absorption and charcoal, others use bamboo. Like every other detail of the process, this can have a major impact on the taste and aroma of the final product.
Aging and Climate
Another distinctive quality in Japanese whisky is the aging process, which gives each whisky its unique color and flavor. Many distillers use oak casks that previously held another liquid, including sherry, wine, or another type of whisky (like bourbon). These can bring out subtle spice and floral notes in the end product.
They also store the casks in different environments, depending on the results they wish to achieve. These can range from damp cellars to warm warehouses. This itself can produce distinct aromas and flavors that come out during blending.
Climate and weather have a lot to do with the outcome of a whisky. Humidity and temperature can be particularly impactful on the finished product.
Northern Japanese distilleries are located in areas intended to mimic the climate of Scottland. Others are in warmer, more humid climates. Some Japanese whisky makers strategically place distilleries in different locations throughout the country to achieve a wide variety of aromas and flavors.
Japanese Whisky Brands
There are many Japanese whisky brands available today, with new ones popping up all the time. Here are the major players and a few emerging ones to keep an eye on.
Suntory is by far the most popular Japanese whisky brand, both within the country and abroad. Its main distilleries include Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita, which have been in operation since 1923. They are all located in different parts of central Japan, to leverage different temperatures and humidity levels.
Yamazaki ranks number one in popularity and has won innumerable awards. Hakusha is a forest distillery, known for creating smokier whiskies.
Chita is Suntory’s dedicated grain whisky distillery. It both bottles directly and offers spirits for creating blends at its other locations.
Nikka is a very close second both in terms of output and renown. It has two distilleries, both in the northern part of the country.
Miyagikyo is several hours north of Tokyo on the main island of Honshu, and Yoichi is located on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. These latitudes allow them to closely mimic the climate of Scotland and create similar expressions in their whiskies.
Both Nikka locations are among the oldest and most seasoned distillers in the country. They both produce a wide assortment of whiskies.
“Ji-whisky” is the name given to whiskies produced in small, local distilleries in Japan. The distinction from regular whiskies is that they are not distributed throughout the country and are not often well known outside the region where they are produced.
It also can be used to describe distilleries that specialize in brewing sake, shochu, or another type of alcoholic beverage, but experiment with whisky on the side. While this does not apply to each of the whiskies below, it does explain their origins.
The country's (and the world’s) largest whisky distillery, Fuji Gotemba, is owned and operated by beer giant Kirin. It has been around since 1972, and produces more than 3 million gallons of whisky every year. They access snowmelt from Mount Fuji for their water supply.
White Oak distillery has been around for a long time. The owner’s family has been making some type of alcohol, including saki, for more than 300 years. They only began making malt in the 1980s, but have become a whisky staple in Japan.
Mars Shinshu also comes from a family that has been making grain alcohol for more than a century. They have the renown of being the Japanese distillery located at the highest elevation, in the south Japanese Alps.
The location affords cooler temperatures and slower maturation. It also has access to pristine water sources from melting snowcaps, which they granite filter.
Founded in 2008, Chichibu is Japan’s newest distillery. It is located just north of Tokay, where the weather fluctuates a great deal between seasons.
This gives them access to both warmth and humidity, as well as cooler, dryer winters. They leverage these variations to produce some of the most unique expressions in whiskies coming out of Japan.
Saburomaru is one of Japan’s better-known ji-whisky distilleries, located on the western coast in Tonami City, Toyama prefecture. It has been producing sake and shochu since the 19th century, but only started making whisky in 1953. They use slightly modified traditional pot stills in their production.
Kikori is the only Japanese distillery that makes whiskey completely from rice. Their whiskies have received various international accolades, including “gold” at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Japanese Whisky Recommendations
As mentioned, the choices of Japanese whiskies are ever-growing. Here are a few staples to get you started, with distinct characteristics and at varying price points.
Suntory Whisky Toki
This 86-proof blend is Suntory’s signature whisky. It is a great jumping-off point (price-wise) for those just getting into Japanese whisky. It also is perhaps one of the easiest Japanese whiskies to find on American shelves.
Toki comes from blends produced at all three Suntory distilleries––two single malts and a single grain. This is a somewhat sweet whisky, with subtle hints of honey. It is versatile––sip it neat, on the rocks, or in cocktails.
Suntory Hibiki Harmony Whisky
One of Suntory’s higher-end whiskies, this 86-proof whisky is delicate but full of complexity. It has a deep amber color, with a nose of lychee and rose petals, as well as hints of rosemary and sandalwood. The palate has a mild sweetness and notes of orange peel and white chocolate.
Fuji Single Grain Japanese Whisky
This is a pure and mellow whisky, but packs a punch at 92 proof. It uses snowmelt from Mount Fuji as its water source.
It blends three grain whiskies to produce unique aromas, flavors, and finish. It is reminiscent of Cognac and marron glace, with orange marmalade, rye, and raspberry flavors. The finish is mellow with a hint of incense wood.
Kikori Japanese Whiskey
“Kikori” means “woodsman” in Japanese. It is inspired by Visu, an ancient woodsman who wandered the countryside for centuries seeking balance in life. This whisky brings together different elements to form a distinctly sophisticated spirit.
As mentioned, it is made from 100 percent rice. For this reason, it is completely gluten-free. It ages between three and 10 years in French or American oak casks that once held sherry or bourbon.
The whisky has a light color and a smooth, crisp finish. There is no peat, smoke, or spice to it. It is however extremely fragrant and delivers a smooth, balanced flavor.
Shinshu Mars Iwai
This is an 80-proof whisky inspired by various American whiskies. It is unique in that it uses corn as the major malt ingredient. It also is aged in oak barrels that formerly housed bourbon.
The whisky is sweet with notes of fruit flavors, including pear and quince, as well as hints of vanilla. It also is one of the most affordable Japanese whiskies available.
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries Pure Malt Whisky
Going the other direction, this one is for the serious Japanese whisky connoisseur. It is made from a blend of the now-closed Hanyu distillery and whisky from its successor, Chichibu, making it a special release. It combines blends aged in sherry and Japanese oak casks.
This whisky hits with a nose of grapefruit, melon, and tangerine. There are some rich, smoky expressions and a hint of peat. It is light, clean, and floral.
Note that it is a 92-proof whisky, and some reviews point out that the alcohol is quite noticeable. This could be a deficit for some, but for others evokes the pungency of some American bourbons.
Learn More About Japanese Whisky
Now that you understand the basics of Japanese whisky and the available brands and blends available, you are ready to stock up. With so many whisky options, you are sure to find one that suits your palate and wallet.
Liquorama is family-owned and operated. We offer one of the largest selections of spirits, craft beer, and wine––including an impressive collection of Japanese whisky. Take a look at our extensive online inventory or contact us with any questions you might have.