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Japanese Whisky

The cognoscenti may have had Japanese whisky in their drinks cabinet for some time but only recently have the wider public, seeking both authenticity and quality, begun to sit up and take notice of the single malts and blends coming out of Japan. Many are surprised to learn that Japanese whisky is far from being a production market in its infancy and even more surprised to discover that it has been amassing prestigious international awards since 2001.

One of the main reasons Japan has been slow to claim its rightful place among the world’s whisky producing elite is that until the last few years Japanese whisky was difficult to source outside of Japan. No longer is this the case and, as a result, the profile of Japanese whisky has climbed ever higher and global recognition hasn’t been slow to follow. The old attitudes, that meant Japanese whisky was greeted with at best patronisation and at worst derision, have now been truly put to bed.

In November 2010 Japanese whisky made history when the winners of the World Whisky Awards were announced in London. Suntory, a Japanese company whose first commercial sales were made in 1929, scooped the awards for ‘World’s Best Single Malt’, with the Yamazaki 1984 and ‘World’s Best Blend’ with their Hibiki 21 year old blended whisky; never before has one company taken both titles. In the space of the five years between 2001 to 2006, sales figures rose from 5,000 to 50,000 of Japanese whisky in Europe.

There are currently ten distilleries in Japan, some owned by the same company, and each produces very distinctly different products. When whisky production first began in Japan during the 1920s there was a deliberate intent to emulate and recreate Scotch whisky. The early pioneers conscientiously studied the methods employed by the iconic whisky nation and still today Japanese whisky has more than a passing similarity to Scotch whisky.

However, in the years between those first productions and the present, Japan has developed many innovative maturing processes and diversified to such an extent that today, Japanese whisky has its own exclusive properties and distinctions. One such company which displays these qualities is Suntory, producers of 100 varieties of malt and whose distilleries include Yamakazi, Hakushu and Hibiki. Their use of Japanese oak casks in their maturing methods adds a unique quality to their whisky. Furthermore, although whisky production in Japan still gives more than a passing nod to it’s Scots-like origin methods, it is produced in climates which little resemble those of its Gaelic cousins. Climate wise there are more similarities between Japanese whisky production and American bourbon.

It is fairly common practice in the world of blended whisky production for separate companies to trade their malts to arrive at a particular result. However, in Japan this inter-trading isn’t generally followed and has necessitated each company diversifying to avoid limited products. Thus the same distillery may produce a light and floral whisky or one with full-bodied, peaty qualities.

It is widely recognised that the Suntory and Nikka companies are the country’s leaders and by far the largest although other distilleries such as Venture Whisky, Mercian and Kirin are not without their own share of discerning customers and advocates.

Of the Suntory distilleries, Yamazaki distillery’s produced single malts continue to hold their place as one of the most highly acclaimed. Yamazaki produce many whiskies besides their most recent international award winner and tend to be lightly peated, woody and fruity. These include the vibrantly gold coloured, medium bodied, 10 year malt which has a cinnamon spice palate and honey finish; the 12 year full-bodied malt which despite its medium to full body is both mellow and delicate with fruity palate and woody finish and the full-bodied, copper gold coloured, 18 year malt with its rich sherry qualities and a palate of both chocolate and coffee.

The distinct peatyness of Hakushu whisky, another of Suntory’s distilleries, is widely reviewed as reminiscent of Caol Ila, the renowned malt produced on the Isle of Islay in the Scottish Inner Hebrides.

Yamazaki is marketed as a spirit which works well as an aperitif or after dinner drink and can be enjoyed straight, ‘on the rocks’ or mizuwari – the Japanese term for water mixed.

Nikka’s Yoichi 20 year old single malt has also made its own mark on whisky history by being voted the world’s best single malt in the World Whisky Awards in 2008. This was the first time that any single malt produced outside of Scotland had taken the award; not surprisingly this significant and ground-breaking achievement was reported widely in the world’s press including the British broadsheet, The Sunday Times.

Nikka whiskies tend to be more fuller bodied than those of Suntory and have more distinctly peaty character notes although there are variations within both companies.

One of the rising stars at present is Venture whisky who are currently producing more whisky than any other distillery and are introducing many of the new products on the market. Another huge drive at present and led by Suntory is a campaign to promote the use of whisky in highballs. So far the marketing campaign is paying dividends and has seen whisky sales significantly increase.

Japanese whisky is gaining an ever increasing popularity on a global scale and so much so that all over the Internet, English language websites are springing up dedicated solely to Japanese whisky. One such example and widely hailed as the leading light on the topic is www.nonjatta.com. This vast site, run by independent whisky connoisseurs, is crammed with whisky reviews, latest news and places to buy.

In the space of a few years Japan has gone from a nation that very few Westerners were even aware produced whisky to a global leader who rarely fails to come away from the world’s most prestigious awards without at least one major win.