Japanese whisky: On a High

03 January, 2014

After a supply blip in recent years Japanese whisky is once more on the march. Dominic Roskrow looks at the reasons why

IF EVER YOU NEEDED PROOF that Japanese whisky had established itself among the world heavyweight whisky producers it came at a recent whisky show in Paris.

The finest whiskies the country has to offer were not in the world whiskies area, but in a room called Grandes Nations de Whisky. 

“Japanese whisky has crossed over from novelty or esoteric into the senior school playground,” says Marcin Miller, who owns the Number One Drinks Company, which imports rare Japanese whisky. “Japanese whisky now has British supermarket listings, good visibility in travel retail and there are even groovy London bars devoted to the subject.

“I can’t comment for the big producers but there is a feeding frenzy surrounding the whiskies I work with. Single cask Karuizawa sells out immediately upon launch and the new Chichibu whisky is on allocation only. Long may it continue.”

The signs that the trend will indeed continue are good. For, while Japan is now being accepted as one of the original or ‘old world’ nations for whisky producing alongside Scotland, Ireland, Canada and Kentucky, it’s taken 90 years of production to do so. And, after a surge of interest over the past 10 to 15 years, Japan is only now properly getting all its ducks in a row, overcoming some serious supply issues caused by the fact that it was taken by surprise by the huge volume of awards that came its way and was unprepared for the surge in demand as a result.

Japan’s whisky industry is small. It has two principle whisky makers: Suntory, which owns the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, and Nikka, which owns Yoichi and Miyagikyo. In addition, the country has one craft distiller, Ichiro Akuto, who has built his own distillery, called Chichibu. There is also a small quantity of whisky from closed distilleries but it is becoming harder and harder to get hold of and commands huge prices.

Old whiskies from the main producers are scarce, too, because the companies didn’t lay down enough stock 25 years ago to respond to the new demand.

Don’t make the mistake of seeing Japanese whisky as a somewhat parochial and small backwater. It is anything but. Because there are so few distilleries and because Nikka and Suntory have no supply agreements with each other as distilleries in Scotland do, the distilleries each company has are highly complex. 

A range of stills, several different yeasts and a range of casks for maturation ensure that each distillery can produce several styles of malts. While most of this is for blending purposes, it still means that each company has the potential to release malts covering a wide range of flavour profiles.

That said, on the whole Japanese whisky models itself on Scotland and, unlike many of the whiskies coming from new territories, Japan has sought to produce whisky that sits nicely alongside Scotland taste-wise. 

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