News & Insights

Japanese Whisky

31st October 2023. By William McNab

In recent years it is safe to say that in the world of fine alcohol Japanese whisky has firmly put its name on the map. Whilst not the drink that many Westerners immediately associate with Japan, since 2001 when the Nikka Distillery was awarded ‘The Best of The Best’ title at the annual Whisky Magazine Awards, Japanese whisky has only gained in popularity.

Whilst there are records of whisky being consumed in Japan as far back as the 1950s, it is in the early twentieth century that Japan’s main story begins. In 1923 Shinjiro Torii, a spirits importer and wine maker, along with Masataka Taketsuru, a Glasgow trained distiller, came together with the single aim of producing a whisky that suited the Japanese palate. This follows the ideal of ‘Wakon Yosai’ or ‘Western spirit, Japanese technology’ in which Japan uses modern Western techniques but adapts to improve them whilst altering to fit the Japanese need. Together they built Yamazaki Distillery near Kyoto in true Wakon Yosai spirit, combining Scottish technology and Japanese ingenuity. Yamazaki is famed for its good water, once being a site of an ancient tea house, and this proved fruitful as in 1929 the first authentic Japanese whisky was produced - Shirofunda.

In the years that followed each company created his own distillery. Torii created Suntory and Taketsuru create Nikka, both of which are today’s top distilleries. The real Japanese whisky booms occurred during the Second World War when Western soldiers were stationed in Japan, and then later in the 1970s and 80s during a period of booming economic growth in Japan. There is a plethora of distilleries across Japan, both small and large, with many following the traditional Scottish method. A lot of distilleries import their malt directly from Scotland, using a mix of peated and unpeated, as well as a range of both imported casks and native Japanese oak.

Today, Japan is in the top three producers of whisky globally, with Japanese whiskies winning first prize awards at the World Whisky Awards every year since 2007 and Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 being declared the best whisky in the world in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Recognisable for their mild, distinctive taste and aroma, differing to the Scots due to Japan’s climate and experimentation with technique, Japanese whisky is truly unique and continuing to make it’s stamp on the market.

A bottle of Hibiki 21 Year Old Suntory Whisky will be offered in the Fine Wine and Whisky Timed Online Sale, which opens on 20th November, with an estimate of £400-600 plus buyer's premium.


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