Dreams of Drams: The Story of Japanese Whisky
Conjuring images of misty moors, the shadows of peat bogs, and hills of emerald green, that potent potable known alternatively as “whiskey” or “whisky” stands above and apart from the hoi polloi mass of everyday spirits. It is the gentleman’s drink, the celebratory glass, and the “water of life,” enjoyed the world over yet limited in its regions of notable production. Scotland (the “e”-less whisky), Ireland (the “e”-ful whiskey), and America (whose bourbon whiskey carries an evocative world of its own) rank first, forth, and second… and far away from the British diaspora lies Japan, number two for production of whisky in the world. As the spelling of this article will reflect, the Japanese whisky comes primarily out of the Scottish tradition. Yet, it is its own creature, said to be more delicate, sweet, and smooth than the Scottish one, having developed and adapted to a very specific palate.
Humble Origins and Two Great Men
Though the formal history of whisky in Japan spans not yet a century, there was whisky of a sorts being consumed in the country since the opening of the borders in the 19th century. However, to call this beverage “whisky” does the word an injustice: strong spirits made overseas were bought up by wholesalers with minimal tax burden, and this raw liquid would be sweetened, flavored, and sold by pharmacists. However, this scheme wasn’t to last long, as the Meiji government took measures to protect the native sake brewers and began imposing higher and higher taxes to block this inrush of foreign alcohol.
In the midst of all this was a company called Settsu Brewing (now TaKaRa Holdings), which in and of itself wasn’t key to the history of whisky in Japan, but had ties with the two men who were: Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. The former, who was an important client of Settsu Brewing, had a businessman’s passion for overseas alcohol and ran his business, Kotobukiya, selling (and later even making) port wines and other beverages. As for the latter, he was the scion of a clan of sake brewers, and while Torii’s business flourished, Taketsuru was dispatched overseas by Settsu’s chairman to learn the ways of Scottish whisky-craft.
Arriving in Scotland in 1918, Taketsuru studied under great distillers at the University of Glasgow, even meeting there the lady who would become his wife, Rita Taketsuru née Jessie Roberta Cowan. Returning with his bride in the 1920s, he was hired by Torii as an executive at the new Yamazaki Distillery, Japan’s very first true-and-proper whisky distillery. They chose that namesake suburb of Kyoto (now Shimamoto, Osaka) because of its climate, which was similar in ways to that of Scotland’s with fogs rolling in from the juncture of three rivers, and its water, superb enough for the father of Japanese tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu, to have found a tea house there.
Stumbles and Strides
In 1924, the Yamazaki distillery began selling its first whisky, Shirofuda (“White Label”) Suntory. From this whisky, and those that would come after it as well, Kotobukiya took the name under which it is much better-known now: Suntory. The “sun” part refers to what was Kotobukiya’s original flagship beverage, Akadama (“Sun”) Port, and the “tory” is from Torii’s family name. A notable piece of advertisement was written up for the drink, translating to something like, “Sober up, countrymen! The era to fixate on Western ideals has passed us already. Sobered up, my countrymen? Our land’s most excellent drink—Suntory Whisky—is here.”
As renowned as the copywriting was, the drink itself wasn’t very successful, and customers came in droves to return it, complaining of its “strong, peaty flavor.” Trial-and-error continued in search of a whisky the people of Japan could love, and in 1934 Taketsuru struck out on his own to start a distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido. However, good whisky needs to age, and to generate revenue and capital as he brewed, he founded his company as Dainipponkaju (Fruit Juice of Great Japan) and sold first apple juice and then apple wine until at last whisky sales began in 1940. Taking the “ni” and the “ka” from the company’s name, it was sold as Nikka Whisky, which later was adopted as the company’s name.
Plaudits and the Landscape Today
Suntory and Nikka are then as now the twin titans of Japanese whisky, and both sell a variety of single malt, blended malt, and blended whiskies. Torii’s old port shop has grown into a massive beverage empire, and Suntory deals both in whisky and other liquors as well as beer, coffee, and soft drinks. Under the auspices of the Asahi group, Nikka also boasts a broader market with its manufacture of brandies, liquors, and (yes, even now) apple wine. Though the salaryman in the street will mostly drink Suntory’s Kakubin (lit.”square bottle”) and Black Nikka Clear, what has catapulted this pair of whisky producers into global esteem is their top shelf stuff.
Back almost fifteen years ago, Whiskey Magazine released a surprising result for their 2001 global Best of the Best when they announced the honors would go to Nikka’s Yoichi 10-year Single Cask, the first for the country. This set a spark to a worldwide obsession with Japanese whisky—Suntory got their name in lights when they picked up gold at the International Spirits Challenge in 2003 with their 12-year-old Yamazaki, and Japanese whiskies have been regularly honored at award ceremonies and in reviewer selections since. Other names to watch out for include Nikka’s Taketsuru, a pure malt whisky, and Suntory’s single-malt Hakushu and blended Hibiki.
There are a total of nine active distilleries in Japan now. In addition to their original locations, both companies founded distilleries in the late 60’s and early 70’s: Suntory has Hakushu and Chita (with the latter mostly making grain whiskies), and Nikka has a distillery in Sendai. Kirin, another beverage giant of Japan, also runs one near the slopes of Mount Fuji, where they produce whiskies that are worth a dram or two, even if they haven’t yet met great global acclaim.
This leaves us with three semi-independent whisky-makers. The first is White Oak Distillery in Akashi City near Kobe. It’s managed by Eigashima Shuzo, a smaller producer of various Japanese alcohols who first released a whisky in 2007. Next to note is Venture Whisky’s Chichibu Distillery in Saitama. Run by Ichiro Akuto, who inherited a ken of whisky from his distiller grandfather, Chichibu’s “Ichiro’s Malt” has made a few ripples overseas and merits keeping an eye on. To round off the list is the Shinshu Mars Distillery in mountainous Nagano, which took an award for best blended malt at the World Whisky Awards recently, though in years past there was much worry over whether they would be successful in restarting their stills or not.
Pubs, Bars, and Dinner Tables
However, the drinkers of Japan can be a cosmopolitan lot, and if you walked into a whisky bar you’d see just as many foreign products on the wall as you would local ones, with a particular focus on the great whiskies of Scotland. Even at regular establishments, the shelves will be lined with brands familiar to the Western imbiber: Ballantine’s and Laphroaig, Bushmills and Canadian Club. More than any other foreign whiskey, the Japanese love American bourbon, and any well-stocked bar will have not just Jim Beam and Jack Daniels but also Early Times, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey, to name a few.
Fine whisky in Japan is drunk straight or on the rocks, but more whisky per capita enters Japanese bloodstreams through a popular cocktail that combines whisky and soda over ice. This is a class of drink called a highball, though “highball” (rendered phonetically as “haibooru”) has become almost synonymous with whisky-soda in Japan. Additionally, whisky-drinkers might mix in hot water to make a barebones toddy (“yu-wari”) in winter and in summer dilute it 1:2 with cold water (“mizu-wari”), both reminiscent of the drinking mannerisms for Japan’s original spirit, shochu. Most unusual to Westerners is the Japanese fondness for whisky with food, in part the influence of their traditional ways of drinking and in part hard work done by whisky-makers to get Japanese diners to pair their products with Japanese cuisine.
In a strictly economic sense, whisky isn’t what it once was in Japan. Consumption peaked in the mid-1980s only to sink to a fourth of that by the nadir of the early 2000s. However, sales have begun to recover some, perhaps in part rallied by the accolades Japanese whisky has received internationally), and it seems to have adapted and evolved from a simple drink of the masses into something with a class and allure all its own.
One final note before you go and grow deeply, unshakably attached to one specific whisky of Japan, though: refinement is fundamental to the practices of Japanese distillers as well as a key component of Japanese business philosophy in general. Unlike with a Scottish whisky, which strives to give you the same taste one century to the next, the Japanese whisky you love today may be gone next year, so sip your beloved drink, heave a sigh against all things transient, bring to mind the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms, and say, “This too will pass.”
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