By Julie Harrington Giffin
Japanese culture is fragrant and exotic and their whisky is no exception. Make no mistake about it, sake’ may be the national beverage of Japan, but it is their whisky that intrigues the most sophisticated palates well versed in Scotch, Irish and American whiskies. With its delicate familiarity, Japanese whisky continues to make a radical, unanticipated climb in popularity both in Japan and abroad.
Whisky production in Japan can be traced back almost 150 years where it remained predominantly domestic and undeservingly dormant. This little-known expression got its first glimpse of international stardom when a Nikka 10 year Yoichi Single Malt was awarded “Best of the Best” by Whiskey Magazine in 2001. For the next decade, Japanese whisky production continued its quest to produce a “Scotch” whiskey in Japan while gradually acquiring a quiet cult following. This quest sent shockwaves worldwide when Jim Murray, a critically acclaimed whiskey connoisseur, bestowed Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as the “Worlds Best Whisky” in his 2015 Whiskey Bible. This was a groundbreaking and ground-shaking moment in the world of whisky as it simultaneously legitimized the Japanese whiskey industry while shattering that of Scotch. For the first time in over a decade a Scotch blend was visibly absent from the list of top five whiskies. This momentous award gave rise to the world of Japanese whisky and set off a rush in popularity that remains unstoppable.
The real intrigue with Japanese whisky is the absence of regulation in production. Unlike a bourbon, scotch or Irish whisky, regulated standards identifying a Japanese whisky fail to exist. This absence of regulation affords ample creative play by the master distiller to produce a whisky where elements in style are distinctively unique and in this case, Japanese. One such distinction would be the use of mizunara oak. The influence of this rare and indigenous oak explodes on the palate with traditional Japanese flavors of vanilla, honey, floral, pear, apple, nutmeg, sandalwood and cloves. In addition to Mizunara, distilleries have the freedom to use a variety of wood casks such as American, Spanish, European, and used sherry casks. Incredibly, it’s not uncommon for one brand to house 50 or more malt and grain spirits. In regard to blends, distilleries use their own whisky and refrain from sharing with competitors. This coveted level of oversight is unique to the industry. It is common for Scotch whisky brands to trade their single malt or grain whisky to produce blends.
From the onset, Scotch has had a profound impact on the evolution of whisky production in Japan. The distinction however, is found in the details. Techniques unique to Japanese distillers have defined a new-wave whisky through the fusion of art and science.