A Brief History of Japanese Whiskey

Japan may be one of the more recent countries to adopt a whiskey distilling culture, but that hasn’t kept them from becoming a worldwide powerhouse. Recognized for their ingenuity and incorporation of traditional Japanese practices into the whiskey distilling process, it’s a country where the unique historical context greatly influences the whiskey they produce.


This post was written in cooperation with BestJapanItems.com

Traditional Japanese Spirits

While whiskey is a relatively new alcoholic product for Japan, there are many traditional Japanese beverages and condiments that leverage outputs of the whiskey producing process.

One of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the country is sake, which dates to the 3rd century and uses a process very similar to the initial production of distiller’s beer for whiskey. In a whiskey, the very first step is mashing and fermenting the constituent grains, which typically consist of some combination of corn, rye, wheat, and barley. For sake, steamed rice is used and added to a mixture of water and yeast. The mixture is allowed to ferment and convert the sugars in the rice into alcohol over a period of 60 to 90 days.

That same brewing process would start to be used in the production of soy sauce when Buddhism came to the country in the 7th century, bringing with it an emphasis on the use of soy-based products.

While brewing was a common practice for centuries, the production of distilled alcohol really started only in the mid-16th century when traders from the Middle East brought the knowledge with them. In Japan, that process gave birth to the local spirit called shochu, which appears for the first time in historical records around 1559 (according to Wikipedia, this reference is thanks to two drunk workmen complaining about their stingy boss). Shochu is very similar to the common whiskey, but the distillation process for it starts with potato, yams, or corn that is processed into a paste and fermented before being distilled multiple times. The distilled spirit is usually only matured for a couple months prior to shipment.

Whiskey Comes to Japan

Historically speaking, Japan has taken a stance of extreme isolationism. Once traders from other nations started regularly visiting Japan, the shogun went so far as to establish a permanent island called Dejima in 1641, which was the only place where foreign traders were allowed to land and conduct business.

This approach continued until Commodore Perry arrived with his American battleships in 1853 and forced the country to be more open to outside traders, an action which would come to define the term “gunboat diplomacy.”

Throughout the next few decades, foreign goods and especially foreign spirits started appearing on Japanese shelves, making quite a bit of money for the Japanese importers and distributors. One such business was run by Shinjiro Torii, who had founded his wine importation business in Osaka, Japan on February 1, 1899. The business was extremely successful with its importation business, but Torii wanted to do more than just import whiskey from other countries — he wanted to make Japanese whiskey specifically designed for the Japanese people.

Against the wishes of the other executives in the company, Torii started working with Masataka Taketsuru to develop this new kind of whiskey. Taketsuru had spent a great deal of time in the 1920’s traveling to Scotland and learning from the masters about the process of whiskey distilling, and even fell in love and married a Scottish woman while he was there. He brought that knowledge back with him, and together they founded the Yamazaki distillery on the outskirts of Kyoto, using some of the same water sources that had attracted famous traditional tea houses to the area centuries earlier. And, while their production process would be similar to the Scottish style, the historical influence of soy sauce brewing and shochu distilling can still be seen in the end result.

The Yamazaki distillery would eventually be owned by a company called Suntory, which would become one of the powerhouse names in whiskey distilling and grow to include Jim Beam and its associated brands in its portfolio in addition to the Japanese brands it would create. And after his contract expired, Taketsuru would leave to found his own distillery that would eventually become the renowned Nikka brand we know today.

Modern Japanese Whiskey

From those humble beginnings, Japanese whiskey has continued to improve and mature. The influence of that early Scottish style can still be seen today in both the design of the whiskey stills themselves as well as the general approach to whiskey production.

A common thread that unites Japanese and Scottish whiskey is the art of blending. Scottish whiskey has only very recently adopted the “single malt” approach in earnest, a process in which only the whiskey from a single distillery is used to create the final product. Traditionally, wine and whiskey merchants would purchase stocks of whiskey from various distilleries, even competitors, and blend them together to create a house brand that would then be sold. This is how brands like Johnnie Walker came into existence and rose to popularity.

With Japan, the art of blending is still very much part of the whiskey production process. Single malt Japanese whiskey is available, but it doesn’t make up the majority of the available stock. The difference is that in Japan, the whiskey is blended by the manufacturer, not the distributor. This means that while the whiskey may still come from multiple distilleries or even different years of production, the source distilleries are all owned by the same company. This vertical integration and ability to oversee every step of the process is through to improve the consistency of the whiskey, as well as the quality of the end product.

Another unique aspect of Japanese whiskey production is the occasional use of Japanese oak barrels during the aging process. While American or French oak barrels are often used to age the whiskey (just like their more traditional counterparts), some Japanese whiskey uses a local variety of oak called Mizunara, which only grows in one specific region near Hokkaido. These oak trees are only harvested once they reach 200 years of age, and by that time are so twisted and gnarled that they only are capable of producing around 130 barrels per year. But the unique wood is considered more permeable than the American cousin, allowing more interaction with the whiskey and therefore a greater transfer of flavor into the spirit.

Prior to 2000, nearly all of the whiskey produced in Japan was consumed in the domestic market. It was only within the last 20 years that Japanese whiskey has started to be distributed and made available in other countries, like the United States. Since that time, though, it has risen to be recognized as a true competitor in the whiskey world — on par with other countries such as Scotland and the United States.

But in my opinion, what truly sets Japan apart from the rest of the world is the unique blending of centuries old traditional methods from their local brewed and distilled products, locally sourced wood barrels and ingredients, and the high art of Scottish whiskey production. It’s truly proof that sometimes the combination of things is more impressive than just the sum of its parts.


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