A Lesson in Japanese Whisky

If we went back 50 years would we have thought that Japanese whisky would surpass Scottish whisky? The answer to that surely has to be a resounding no!

Let’s now look at why Japanese whisky has picked up so many awards, making it one of the best whiskies in the world!

Japanese whisky now becomes one of the world’s leading liquid pleasures.

But how did this all begin?

Well the year was 1923 and this was the date that the first commercial whisky distillery was launched by Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory whisky.

But to truly work out how whisky hit Japan we need to delve a lot deeper.

Believe it or not the story of whisky mirrors Japan’s first steps of looking outwards after the arrival of Commodore Perry. After his departure from Japan, the American Perry gave a rather large 110-gallon barrel of American whiskey to the emperor as a gift and yes, this is how it all started!

The Japanese didn’t have a clue?

Understandably the Japanese had no idea of how to make this so called “whisky” drink themselves, and some locals tried to step in and make a version that by all accounts was rather inferior. Some would say that it wasn’t actually whisky at all!

This strange drink was sold under the name of Queen George, which perhaps speaks of the confusion surrounding what the drink actually was?

After all, whisky consumed in Japan was imported, and most Japanese preferred Sake!

The master distiller begins!

Torii was actually a pharmaceutical wholesaler, but he liked the taste of Western liquor, and so even began to make his own port wine.

Unsatisfied with just port, however, Torii, who also ran a business selling imported wines called Kotobukiya, decided to begin making and selling whisky produced by his company in Japan.

The site he chose for his distillery was in the Vale of Yamazaki, on the outskirts of the ancient Japanese capital, Kyoto. He chose this area for its good access to crystal-clear running water.

They say that great minds think alike and Master Ren no Rikya, who was a 16th Century tea master, chose the exact same place for a tea room.

As tea needs good water, so too does the finest whisky and as we will see the Japanese soon learned how to make fine whisky!

Some Great Whiskies:

They say that knowledge is power!

And it was definitely knowledge that Torii required!

In his pursuit of that perfect whisky, Torii teamed up with Masataka Taketsuru, a fellow Japanese who had travelled to Scotland to study English and Organic Chemistry, and had gained valuable experience working in several Scottish distilleries.

And so came the launch of their first whisky!

Yes, the first commercial whisky was called Suntory Whisky Shirofuda, and was a great success. Sadly, Taketsuru and Torii parted company a few years later, with Taketsuru founding his own distillery in Hokkaido, now known as the Nikka Whisky Distilling Company, and Japan’s second-largest.

A few keys facts that you might not know?

• Like sake, whisky relies on good water, and that may have helped to speed its way onto the Japanese palate.
• Water plays a big role in Japanese religious life, from the Shinto belief in the creation of Japan itself, to the situation of omari shrines near waterfalls, to the use of water in ceremonies and purification rituals.
• Unlike wine, which is made from fermented grape-juice, whisky, like sake, is primarily water, and so fits well into the ancient Shinto notions of misogi (washing your entire body).
• Go on a tour of the Yamazaki distillery today, and you’ll be given a glass of local water before a glass of their whisky, to note the importance of the raw ingredient.

Is Beer really still king?

Within Japan itself, beer is still king, but there is a growing interest in whisky, after a slump in consumption spurred by the economic downturn of the early 1990’s.

Younger Japanese seemed to have turned away from what they considered to be something their fathers may have drunk, and moved instead to wine, beer, sake, and other clear spirits.

Once Japan started winning accolades for its whisky in the early 2000’s, however, they started turning back to it.

Whisky in Japan is drunk primarily as a cocktail, with ice and water. However, as wine is seen as an accompaniment to food in the West, so whisky and water are seen as the perfect accompaniment to Japanese food.

Something to Keep You Smiling!

There is one last thing you may have noticed, especially if you are American: the missing e!

Why the insistence on following the British rather than American or Irish spelling? Well far from it just being a branding exercise, it refers to the inspiration and preparation of what is produced and sold.

Japanese whisky is made in a very similar way to the Scottish version, being distilled twice using pot stills. In fact, many distilleries even use malted and peated barley imported from

So heads up and as ever, drink up and enjoy!