Whisky may be considered quintessentially Scottish but these days, the Japanese distilleries are beating the Scots at their own game, taking home many of the world’s most prestigious awards, including the World Whiskies Awards (WWAs). “Back in the dark days (the WWAs) were dominated by Scotch whisky, with occasional flashes of brilliance from Japanese whiskies. But over the past few years, things have started to change… from the Nikka Taketsuru and Suntory Hibiki ranges’ domination of the blended and blended malts categories to the more recent emergence of Australia and Taiwan as winners of the World’s Best Single Malt award, times are definitely changing," according to the Whisky Exchange.
If Scotch whisky is known for its robust, smoky flavor, Japanese whisky is a subtle counterpart, relying on light spice from Japanese oak or sweetness from honeysuckle. If the Japanese are teaching the industry one thing, it's that the never-ending pursuit of excellence produces uniquely refined results.
A Silent Ascent
Most of the world first became acquainted with Japanese whisky through Lost in Translation's Bill Murray Suntory ads, but this spirit actually boasts a long history. Known as ‘the water of life’, it was first brought to the Land of the Rising Sun in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo harbor with a special gift for the Emperor: a bottle of American whiskey. Around 70 years later, Masataka Taketsuru, headed to Scotland to learn the trade, apprenticing at three distilleries and returning to Japan as master distiller for Suntory.
A Love Story On the Rocks
In 1936, Taketsuru founded his own distillery, Nikka, which to this day is Suntory’s major rival in whisky sales and accolades. Taketsuru did more in Scotland than learn how to make whisky; he also fell in love and brought home a Scottish wife. Their love story is chronicled in a famous soap opera, Massan, with great ratings in Japan and often credited as another reason for the rising popularity of Japanese whisky itself.
The Unique Flavor and Aroma of Japanese Whisky
The Scottish have five types of whisky: single malt, blended malt (which combines two or more single malts), blended whisky (a blend of grain whisky and several single malts), single grain (the product of a single distillery using various types of grain), and blended grain (which blends to or more single grain whiskeys from different distilleries). Japanese whisky varies based on the location of the distiller, the location of the spring water used, and the wide range of still shapes, barley types, yeast strains, fermentations, cut points, and cask options used by different distilleries.
Going a Step Beyond
What makes Japanese whisky unique is the meticulousness nature of the Japanese whisky industry and the cultural importance of improving upon tradition. At this year’s World Whiskies Awards, the Hakushu 25 Year took home the World’s Best Single Malt award, while the Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year won the World’s Best Blended Malt prize. Within Japan itself, Suntory is still the most highly prized whisky on the international awards scene.
And while there is a wider range of Scotch whiskies to try, the increased demand of Japanese whisky has resulted in more variety, blends, and drams. Fans of subtle and spicy whiskies should try the Nikka Yoichi range. For whisky drinkers that appreciate something more sophisticated with oak and smoother flavors, the Suntory Hibiki range is worth exploring. With the list of Japanese whisky options continually growing, this is only the beginning of Japanese whisky's reign at the top.