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Japanese Whiskey

Japanese whiskey began being distilled later than whiskeys in Europe or America; it wasn’t until the 1870s that whiskey production began there. Shinjiro Torii, who began his career a pharmaceutical wholesaler and alcohol importer, started by creating drinks that mimicked the western beverages he was importing. First, he created a Portuguese style wine, Akadama Port Wine, which was quite successful. But then Torii wanted to create a drink more specific to the taste of the Japanese people; this lead to Torii beginning a lifetime of creating Japanese whiskey.

In 1923, Torii founded Kotobukiya in the Kyoto suburb of Yamazaki because the area was known for its high quality water, diverse climate and high humidity. Torii hired MasatakaTaketsuru as the head of the distillery. Taketsuruhad studied the distillation process in Scotland and brought this knowledge back to help Kotobukiya create a Japanese whiskey. They went to great lengths to try and exactly mimic the Scotch whiskey process. This means that their whiskey was 100 percent malted barley, which was imported from the United Kingdom, combined with local mountain spring water, distilled in pot stills and then aged for at least three years in oak barrels.Eventually Taketsuru left Kotobukiya and opened his own distillery, Dainipponkaju.

Today, Japan is the second largest producer in the world of single-malt whiskey, trailing only Scotland. Working to make Japanese whiskeys more suitable to the Japanese palate, the Japanese single-malt is often moved into cask such as brandy, port, bourbon or sherry to enhance flavor and color. Japanese single-malts are aged on average 10 to 18 years. Currently there are 10 distilleries operating in Japan. Nikka and Suntory are the largest distilleries. Taketsuru was the founder of Nikka and Torii was the founder of Suntory. The two whiskeys have distinctly different styles. The Nikka works to adhere to Scottish tradition while the Suntory likes to experiment and sees itself nowadays as a unique Japanese product.Suntory Yamazaki is the most popular single malt whiskey currently in Japan. Suntory offers both a 12-year and a 18-year-old single malt which have received awards from the Beverage Testing Institute and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

In Japan, whiskey blends are created differently than other countries. The same company typically owns the distilleries and all the brands of the blends. Competitors do not trade with one another to create more complex blends. Because this seemed to limit the export value of Japanese whiskeys, many distilleries startedcreating a vast number of different whiskeys. At the Yamazaki company, there are two distilleries, six styles of stills, two types of fermentation tanks, three types of oak barrels–Spanish, American and Japanese, and five different sizes of barrels. This was done so that one companycan create a wide enough selection of whiskeys to create a marketable blend.

Until recently, the sales of Japanese whiskeys have been primary domestic. This changed when Whisky Magazinebegan including Japanese single-malt whiskeys in its publication. On several occasions, Japanese whiskeys scored higher than Scottish single-malt whiskeys.

Fortunately, none of the major Japanese distilleries experienced major damage following the earthquake or tsunami last year. If you are interested in tasting Japanese whiskey in the United States, the best place to sip by the glass is San Francisco’s Nihon Whisky Lounge. This bar serves Yamazaki 12, 18, 1986 sherry wood and a vintage 1994, Nikka Gold and Hibiki 12 and 17. In New York City, the Brandy Library and d.b.a. both serve a variety of Japanese whiskeys and in Denver, the Whiskey Bar serves Yamazaki 12. If you are interested in purchasing Japanese whiskey by the bottle, only Yamazaki 12 and 18 are widely available in stores. All other brands must be ordered online.