Japanese Whisky production in Japan began back in the late 1800’s, but the first commercial production was in 1924 upon the opening of the country’s first distillery. Japanese whisky remained popular in Japan, but didn’t take off in the United States until fairly recently. In 2015, Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was written up as the World’s Best Whiskey according to the Whisky Bible, beating out top shelf scotch in smoothness and flavor. Since then, demand for Japanese whisky has skyrocketed, and so has the pricing. But what makes Japanese whiskey so special?
The history of Japanese Whisky:
Suntory and Nikka are two of the first, and most well known, award winning distilleries… But how did these whisky giants come to be?
Back in the early 1900s, Masataka Taketsuru, a young chemist traveled to Scotland to learn how to recreate scotch whisky. He attended university in Scotland, and worked in a few distilleries, gaining information that he would later bring back to Japan. Upon his return, he began working for Shinjiro Torii, who opened the first whisky distillery in Japan in 1924. That distillery would eventually become known as Suntory. However, in 1934, Taketsuru launched his own distillery, which would come to be called Nikka. From there, other distilleries were created, but to this day, Suntory and Nikka control the lion’s share of the Japanese Whisky market.
What are the regulations to make Japanese Whiskey?
While scotch and bourbon have many requirements to their names, Japanese whisky has only one: it must be made in Japan. This rule in itself is a bit loose, as whisky from other countries can be added to the final product. Since regulation is almost non-existent, these multi-country blends don’t need to be labeled as such. Any grains can be used, smoky pete may be added, and it can be released at any age. Its entirely up to the distiller!
So what does it taste like?
Japanese whisky tends to mimic the style of scotch, as makers learned from scottish distillers. Many distilleries even import their barley from Scotland. At times, they do use peat, but not nearly as much as you’ll find in Scotch. However, Japanese whisky maintains its own character. Flavor wise- Japanese whisky is incredibly balanced and delicate. Some whisky may be fruity or floral, others offer notes of caramel or toffee. Since there is such little regulation, the distiller has the option to play with the blends, changing the flavor profile how they see fit.
Flavien Desoblin of Brandy Library, once described Japanese whisky as such:
“Japanese whiskys are very much the fine-wine-drinker’s take on whisky. There is more attention paid to the body and the texture in Japan than in many other countries. They are looking for that delicate, suave, mouth-coating feel, but never really aggressive. They seem to be powerful, but it’s all silky.”
What can you expect from your whisky? A mixture of Japanese innovation, balance, and finesse, on top of years of scottish tradition.
Why is it so hard is it to get?
Japanese whisky has become increasingly sought-after, primarily because of its limited supply. Since Japanese whisky popularity did not pick up outside of Japan until recently, distillers did not produce enough supply to satisfy today’s demand. Since whisky must be aged before it can be released, often for up to 20 years, it is likely to be a bit of a wait before older whiskys become as readily available as they once were.
While once we could have multiple brands and ages stocked at a time, we now struggle to get in more than a few bottles at a time, especially older, more rare bottles. Check in with us in the beginning of each month, and see what we were allocated… you might just score yourself something special!
Pauline Fink, Staff
Do you have a favorite Japanese whisky? For more information on whiskey, wine, and other spirits, check out our blog. You can ask us any questions here (on our blog,) on Facebook or in the store. We are excited to hear from you! We also deliver locally, to East Hampton, Wainscott, Southampton, Watermill, Amagansett, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, and Montauk.