Whisky Distilleries of Japan

The land of the rising sun is now is a top-ten market for Scotch whisky, but few know the country has a long history of distillation, and the countries own domestic whisky production has been running since the 1920s. Although developed on the model of Scottish whisky, it is however not a pale copy of scotch. The Japanese were able to borrow from their distant Scottish cousins the best of the production process, while pushing the quality requirement to its peak, to the point of now systematically winning many awards in international competitions typically erserved for the Scots. In recent years however Japanese whisky has become so trendy that bottlings with age statement are becoming incredibly rare and increasingly expensive.

Japanese whisky distilleries

Name Country Status Type
Chichibu Japan Active Malt
Chita Japan Active Grain
Eigashima Shuzo Japan Active Malt
Fuji Gotemba Japan Active Malt, Grain
Hakushu Japan Active Malt, Grain
Hanyu Japan Closed Malt
Hombo Mars Japan Active Malt
Kagoshima Japan Active Malt
Karuizawa Japan Closed Malt
Miyagikyo Japan Active Malt
Suntory Yamazaki Japan Active Malt, Grain
Yoichi Japan Active Malt, Grain

*It’s also worth noting that a new whisky distillery entered production in 2017 as Kurayoshi distillery however this distillery has not been listed due to the previous nefarious practices of Matsui Shuzo (details in references).

The origin of Japanese whisky distillation

Japanese agriculture is characterized by rice cultivation but there are two areas where the rice is too cool, northern Hokkaido and the Island of Honshu. The Japanese have grown wheat and barley here for several centuries. The first attempts to distill whisky began as early as 1870 albiet without much success. The Japanese learned to make Scottish style whisky in a manor popular since the Meiji Restoration, Japanese students were sent to other countries to study and master the new craft.

Two names in particular are closely related to the history of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru who learned to create whisky in Scotland and his entrepreneurial employer Shinjirō Torii. The two paved the way at the beginning of the 20th founding their respective whisky companies, both of which are still the largest and most famous in Japan today Nikka and Suntory.

Location of the Japanese distilleries

It is striking that many distilleries in Japan are to be found in places with have similar climatic conditions to the Scottish mainland. There are also various reasons for this and it is not only down to emulation. On the one hand, these areas are unusable for rice cultivation but ideal for growing grain. In addition, peatlands are often found in these regions, reducing the neccesity of importing. Water sources can be found especially in higher regions, so that fresh spring water is used for whisky production can be easily sourced.

Which is not to say that emulation did not occur. Taketsuru Masataka chose the location Yoichi on Hokkaido for his first distillery because of these points a climatically comparable to Scotland, spring water and peat deposits were present. The Japanese have one advantage over the Scots; the high temperature gradient between summer and winter in Japan is extremely helpful for whisky production. This is why Japanese whiskies can often reach comparable level of maturity in only six to eight years whereas the Scots may require ten to twelve years.

International recognition

For a long time, Japanese whiskey was not taken seriously around the world, being generally viewed as a bad copy of the Scottish original. On the one hand, this was due to the fact that, due to the whisky boom in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, a large number of small distilleries quickly produced whisky but this was often stretched with cheaper alcohol. Whiskies that made it beyond the borders of Japan conveyed the impression of a consistently subterranean quality. In addition, many producers of sake and shochu started producing whisky. A successful example of this is the White Oak distillery in Akashi, which still produces good mid-price whiskies under the Akashi brand name. Alas the better whiskies mainly stayed within the country itself.

Unfortunately, this stigma of bad whisky from Japan lasted a long time. Another reason why the breakthrough was a long time coming was the high consumption of whisky in Japan itself. Whisky was advertised as an accompaniment to meals and as a substitute for sake - and it was extremely successful. Picturesque advertising campaigns by the large distilleries, especially Suntory, also increased consumption.

Lost distilleries

The first distilleries and whiskey experiments in Japan came at an inconvenient time. The First World War, the Great Depression, the war between China and Japan and then Japan’s entry into World War II in 1941 shook the world and Japan too. It is a curiousity that the whisky industry was given a special status during World War II, whilst the people were starving, grain was diligently processed into whisky. The whisky was mainly supplied to the Japanese navy. This was particularly beneficial to Nikka, as the company had made heavy losses in the 1930s.

After the Second World War, it would again be the military that saved the Japanese whiskey industry. This time it was the soldiers of the occupying power who drank the Japanese whisky. Despite these favourable forces however a number of Japanese whisky distilleries have closed prior to the modern boom.

Distillery Opened Closed Reason
Sanraku Ocean Shiojiri Factory 1952 1956 Production moved to Karuizawa
Karuizawa 1956 2012
Kawasaki 1935 2006
Hanyu Distillery 1941 2000
Kagoshima 1967 1984 Converted for the production of shochu
Yamazakura 1946* 2006
Nishinomiya 1963 1999 Coffey stills are moved to Miyagikyo distillery
Shirakawa 1953 1985

*Yamazakura operated as Sasanokawa Shuzo distillery opened in 1765 producing sake and shochu it was only in 1946 the distillery began whisky production

The awards begin to arrive

The breakthrough actually only came in the 21st century. Suddenly, Japanese whiskies of incredible quality appeared. Awards followed by awards from renowned competitions and magazines. Since then, Japanese whiskies have become feared competitors to whisky producers around the world. In 2001 Whiskey Magazine the absolute trade journal in the industry, rated Japanese whiskeys for the first time, and they scored “very good” straight away. These evaluations brought the whiskey from Nippon into the consciousness of experts, but also of consumers.

Japanese whiskey also achieved international fame among non-whiskey connoisseurs in 2003 through Sofia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation” with Bill Murray in the leading role. Murray shoots an advertising sport for Suntory Hibiki 17. Prior to Lost in Translation, hardly anyone in Europe knew that whiskey was distilled in Japan or what Suntory actually was.

It was precisely in this year that Whiskey Magazine even gave the Japanese their own category, in which first the Hibiki 21 from Suntory and then the Yoichi 10 from Nikka won. The Japanese were not only asserting themselves in their own categories: over the last fifteen years, various whiskeys from Japanese distillers have won international prizes in various categories every year and have often knocked the Scots off the top spot. The Japanese whiskeys often snatch prizes away from their Scottish relatives at blind tastings by Whiskey Magazine and other well-known competitions in which the Scots compete against the Japanese.

The 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible attracted particular attention on the European market, awarding the chose a sherry cask Yamazaki the best product in its class and one of the best whiskies in the world. Japan’s whiskey exports exploded and have grown steadily ever since. In 2014, Whiskey Magazine named Suntory the best distillery in the world for the fourth time in a row. And also at the World Whiskeys Awards, almost the most important awards in the industry, the 21-year-old Hibiki, also from Suntory, won first prize in the blends class in 2016.

A victim of it’s own success

This was an absolute success story for the Japanese distilleries, however, the increasing demand caused problems; 12, 17 or even 21 years ago when the Japanese distilleries were laying down stock they did not expect or plan for international demand. As a result prices rose, availability of older stock fell causing a rise in NAS (No Age Statement) whiskies and a number of non-Japanese produced whisky being passed off as Japanese due to the lack of any legal defintion of Japanese whisky, a fact which is now happily being addressed.

References