The founding fathers of Japanese Whisky, Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii started to distil whisky in Yamazaki in 1923. Taketsuru had just returned from a 5 year trip to Scotland, where he had learnt traditional Scotch distilling techniques. This grounding in Scottish Whisky is what gives Japanese whisky its hallmark drier, smokier, and slightly peaty flavours, and the reason Japanese Whisky is often likened to Scotch in style.
Torii and Taketsuru eventually separated and Taketsuru moved north to Hokkaido, founding Nikka in 1934. Torii renamed the original Yamazaki business to Suntory. Nikka and Suntory are now the two major powerhouses of Japanese whisky.
Japanese distillers usually produce all whisky in-house and therefore have to be skilled at producing a wide variety of flavours to balance their blends. Often using double malted or peated barley, aged in barrels of native Mizunara Oak. This is different to Scotch where distillers can swap barrels between each other to diversify flavours.
Having won many awards from around the world, demand has seen the rarity and price of Japanese whisky skyrocket- especially bottles with an age statement, distillers simply can’t keep up with demand.
Japanese Whisky Requirements
The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA) has announced a new set of rules that define what is required for a spirit to be called Japanese Whisky.
- It must be distilled, aged & bottled at a distillery in Japan.
- The water used to make the whisky must be extracted in Japan.
- It must contain a malted grain (eg barley, wheat, rye), but other non-malted cereal grains can also be included.
- The spirit must be aged for at least three years in wooden barrels.
- It must be bottled at a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume (ABV).
The new rules take effect on April 1, and distillers must ensure their labels comply by March 31 2024.