Where is Japanese Whisky Headed?

When you hear the word whisky, you probably immediately think of the drink being of Scottish descent. This is only natural given that Scotland and whisky share a long history. While Scotland remains to be the largest producer of whisky in the world today, other countries like South Africa, Korea, and Japan are emerging as stalwarts in whisky production and distribution.

On the outskirts of Tokyo, at Yamazaki, founder Shinjiro Tori decided to set up Japan’s first distillery. Along with partner Masataka Taketsuru, they began their mission to serve their people with Japanese whisky. Taketsuru, who studied in Scotland, wanted to bring the drink back home with him and so began a distillation process that closely resembled the Scottish one. Suntory, Japan’s first whisky, which continues production even today, was closely modelled on Scotch whisky. Soon after, Taketsuru left to start his own distillery, the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido, which to this day produces some world famous whiskies like the Nikka 17 Years Old.

Yamazi, however, never ceased production of the premium Suntory whiskies and over time the distillery won several accolades for its range of blends and single malt whiskies.

Japan went to great lengths to recreate the style of Scottish whisky and this is well reflected in the way they drink it. Blended whiskies are generally drunk in cocktails while single malts are consumed neat as you would a Scotch whisky. While scotch whiskies have clearly left a lasting impression on Japanese whisky culture, they are now coming into their own and gaining popularity world-over.

But what makes them so distinct and unique? A Japanese concept, Kaizen, which translates to continuous improvement, innovation and experimentation is believed to set the Japanese whisky production business apart from others. It attracts a lot of interest not only because of the quality of the whisky but also because the spirit that is produced represents a truly Japanese flavour which is milder, more delicate, and balanced and tending towards a softer, more subtle character that can be fruity or floral.

Nikka and Yamazaki are the two whisky powerhouses of Japan producing spirits to meet the global demand. However, there are other distilleries like the Hakushu, Miyagikyo, and Chichibu operating in Japan. With time, more and more Japanese whiskies are crossing borders to position themselves in the global market. Innovation and experiment in the process of whisky making, have ensured that Japanese whisky is turning more dynamic. Brands like Suntory and Nikka’s single malts have triggered immense interest in Japanese whisky in the past decade.

Because of increased demand and popularity, Japanese whiskies have been able to command higher prices. The craze for Yamazaki distillery whiskies grew even more after being awarded the accolade for being the best whisky in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Some of the best-selling Japanese whiskies today include, the Nikka Single Malt which is known for its smoky and fruity flavour and the Suntory Hibiki 21 years old which has topped the blended whisky category at the Whisky Awards four times.

The business may be booming, but distillers are struggling to meet the international demand, facing an acute shortage in supply. The limited edition, rare bottles often get sold off in auctions, but other regular labels like Hakushu 12 and Hibiki 17 are being discontinued due to various issues the distilleries are facing. While it is possible that the labels have been temporarily discontinued, whisky connoisseurs across geographies are alarmed by the growing crisis in Japanese whisky and how the future of Japanese whisky looks bleak.

At the face of this crisis, us, whisky lovers can only hope that in the near future, other distilleries in Japan follow the footsteps of the two stalwarts, Yamazaki and Yoitchi in representing an essential part of the Japanese culture to the rest of the world. And Nikka and Suntory relaunch our favourite Hibiki and Hakushu.