How to collect Japanese whisky
Japanese whisky was born less than a century ago, yet in the past 20 years it has reached levels of desirability to match Scotland’s ‘water of life’. Here’s how to tell your Yoichi from your Yamazaki
The story of Japanese whisky begins with a partnership that turned into a rivalry, which still exists today. Whisky has been produced in Scotland for hundreds of years, but its origins have been lost to time. The history of Japanese whisky, on the other hand, is relatively short and well documented.
In 1923, Shinjiro Torii, an astute pharmaceutical wholesaler from Osaka who had made a small fortune producing a sweet red wine called Akadama, opened Japan’s first malt whisky distillery. Located in Yamazaki, just outside Kyoto, it was constructed at the convergence of the Katsura, Uji and Kizu rivers, providing some of Japan’s softest water and a unique misty climate.
Torii’s vision was to create a whisky that appealed to the delicate Japanese palate. The man who could realise it for him was Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist from Hiroshima who had sailed to Scotland in 1918 to learn the secrets of whisky production, apprenticing at distilleries in Speyside, West Lothian and Campbeltown.
In return for Taketsuru’s notebooks, filled with recipes and diagrams, Torii hired Taketsuru as the director of the Yamazaki distillery in 1924. The company would become known as Suntory, producing the first Japanese whisky.
Taketsuru, however, dreamt of creating a more powerful whisky, truer to its Scottish roots. In 1934, along with his Glaswegian wife Rita, he relocated to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, famed for its cool, crisp air. Six years later, his own distillery produced its first whisky. He named his business Nikka.
In 2014, the story of Masataka and Rita Taketsuru became the subject of a hit Japanese TV drama that ran to 150 episodes.
Today, Suntory and Nikka are Japan’s biggest whisky producers.
The ingredients for Japanese and Scottish whisky
Japanese and Scottish whiskies both start with grain, usually malted barley, that has been steeped in water before being kiln-dried. The grain is ground into a grist, which is then mashed with hot water and distilled twice: first in a wash still to separate the alcohol from the water and yeast; then in a spirit still, where it becomes a pungent, clear spirit known as ‘new make’.
What follows is arguably the most important part of the process: ageing. This is when whisky develops its distinct flavours.
The new make is left to mellow in wooden barrels. These are often second-hand bourbon casks made from American oak, which imbue the liquid with sweet, fruity, vanilla and spicy overtones, as well as a golden honey colour.
Some Japanese distilleries also use European oak, in the form of old sherry butts from southern Spain. Thanks to their finer grain and tannins, they create a darker variety of whisky, often defined by heady aromatics and intense flavours.
The importance of ageing
Since 2021, Japanese whisky has to be aged for a minimum of three years, as required by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association. Premium whiskies, however, will have been left to take on the character of their barrels for more than a decade; the bottle’s label will indicate the age of the liquor inside.
As in Scotland, the label should also indicate if the whisky is a ‘single malt’ (made entirely in one distillery from malted barley), a ‘single grain’ (made entirely in one distillery with corn, wheat or rye), or a ‘blend’, which is a combination of malt and grain whiskies from two or more distilleries. In the case of a blend, the age on the label will refer to its youngest component.
The differences between Japanese and Scottish whisky
The most obvious difference relates to the environment. Firstly, Japan has warmer, more humid summers. Fluctuating temperatures can speed up a whisky’s ageing process — and the more quickly this occurs, the more complex the flavours can become.
Because of this, some Japanese producers distil seasonally, unlike in Scotland, where whisky is distilled throughout the year.
Secondly, atmospheric pressure can also affect the ageing process, and Japan’s distilleries rank among the highest above sea level in the world, making for a notably low-pressure environment.
Ingredients differ, too — and sometimes in surprising ways. Most distilleries in Japan import barley from Scotland. Scotland, on the other hand, imports the majority of its own whisky barley from eastern Europe and America.
The unique mineral profile of Japan’s spring water is another factor that gives Japanese whiskies their own sense of terroir.
In addition, some processes are unique to Japan. Certain distilleries age whisky in mizunara oak barrels, which imparts flavours of coconut and sandalwood. Others finish ageing their whiskies in old umeshu (plum wine) casks, or filter them through bamboo instead of charcoal. These steps are believed to give Japanese whiskies a distinct flavour.
The big players in Japanese whisky: Suntory and Nikka
Suntory’s most famous whisky is Yamazaki, a single malt that is still produced in Japan’s first commercial distillery. In both 2011 and 2012, Yamazaki 25 Year Old was named the best single-malt whisky in the world at the World Whiskies Awards.
Suntory also makes Hakushu, a single malt from its distillery at the foot of the Japanese Alps on the main island of Honshu, and Chita, a single-grain whisky made with corn at its distillery on the Chita Peninsula, on Honshu’s southern shores. Hibiki and Toki are both blended whiskies, created with spirits from the Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries.
Nikka makes Yoichi, a single malt produced in Taketsuru’s first distillery on Hokkaido, as well as Miyagikyo, a single malt that comes from the company’s second distillery, located in a lush valley in Miyagi, around 350km northeast of Tokyo.
Nikka also makes Nikka Coffey, which uses either malt or corn grain in one of its two continuous ‘Coffey’ stills; the stills were imported from Scotland by Taketsuru in the 1960s.
The company’s range of blended whiskies includes Nikka Taketsuru, Nikka From The Barrel, Nikka Days, The Nikka and Super Nikka.
Smaller and rarer producers: Chichibu, Hanyu and Karuizawa
One of Japan’s newest distilleries is Chichibu. It was established by Ichiro Akuto in 2004 near the city of Chichibu, around 80km northwest of Tokyo, and is known for its experimental use of domestic barley and Japanese beer barrels.
Akuto’s output is a fraction of his major competitors’, but whiskies from his ‘Ichiro’s Malt’ range have regularly won World’s Best Blended Limited Release at the World Whiskies Awards since 2017. Another of Akuto’s celebrated releases consisted of 58 different ‘Playing Card’ whiskies. Just 120 bottles named after each card were created in 2005, made with whisky that Akuto had rescued from the derelict Hanyu distillery founded by his grandfather.
Hanyu, founded in 1941, produced whisky from the 1980s until 2000. Together with Karuizawa, a distillery that was in operation on the slopes of the active volcano Mount Asama between 1955 and 2001, it is known as a ‘ghost’ producer. Despite the fact that they’ve long been closed, a finite number of barrels from both distilleries are still being bottled and released to market.
Karuizawa was made with peated barley — a rarity among Japanese whiskies — and aged in sherry casks, which gives it flavours of fig, caramel, black cherries and dark chocolate. Only 300 barrels were left maturing when the distillery was mothballed, and the dwindling supply makes it not only hard to come by, but extremely expensive.
Exploding international demand for Japanese whisky
Until about the year 2000, the demand for Japanese whisky was almost entirely domestic. Its popularity exploded internationally three years later with the release of Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning film Lost in Translation, in which Bill Murray starred as Suntory’s newest brand ambassador. In the same year, 2003, Yamazaki 12 Year Old became the first Japanese whisky to be awarded a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge.
Fast-forward to today, and demand now outstrips supply. Aged stock is incredibly hard to come by on the primary market — even in Japan — and on the secondary market, the price of most bottles has tripled over the past decade. For some of the rarest, it’s risen tenfold.
The pinnacle of the market is Suntory’s Yamazaki 55 Year Old. It’s the oldest Suntory whisky ever produced and was distilled by Shinjiro Torii himself. Limited to 200 bottles, in 2020 half were made available by lottery to Japanese residents, and the remaining 100 bottles were offered outside Japan priced at the equivalent of US$27,500. Two months later, a bottle appeared at auction in Hong Kong. It realised US$795,000.
Smaller distilleries like Chichibu are also popular with collectors: a full set of Ichiro’s Playing Card bottles is currently valued at around half a million dollars.
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Similarly, a single bottle of Karuizawa whisky can fetch anywhere from four to six figures at auction, depending on age and rarity.
The good news is that Japanese whiskies are regularly available at auction, and prices start from just a few hundred pounds for younger, blended varieties — meaning there is something for every budget.