The Art of Japanese Whisky: A Journey Through the Best Distilleries
Exploring the world of Japanese whisky is like entering a Zen garden, where every detail has been carefully tended to and reflects the intrinsic craftsmanship of the Japanese spirit.
This magical world of aromas and tastes captivates the senses, resulting in an unforgettable and profound experience. This article delves into the sophisticated distillation process, the deep history of the spirit, and the different production zones and styles that give rise to Japanese whisky’s reputation as a masterwork.
The essence of Japanese whisky lies in its embodiment of the nation’s unwavering pursuit of excellence, a characteristic deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche. Embracing the art of precision and perfection, Japanese distillers have turned whisky making into a spiritual experience, crafting each expression with an unwavering devotion to quality and balance.
While it’s true that the origins of Japanese whisky can be traced back to its Scottish counterparts, the Japanese have elevated the craft by refining traditional techniques and ingeniously incorporating elements of their unique terroir.
Japanese distillers have created a spirit that embodies their culture and captivates the world with its richness and intricacy.
How Japanese Whisky is Made
Japanese whisky production is a delicate and complex art form, drawing inspiration from Scottish distillation techniques while incorporating distinct Japanese elements. Barley, water, yeast, and wood all play crucial roles in the creation of this exquisite drink.
Raw Materials and Mashing
Japanese distilleries take great pride in the quality of their raw materials; of course, they are fans, especially of clear waters.
It is said that in Japan, there are sources of pure water where fairies and unicorns drink, but they are accessible only to heroes and warriors who have gone through enormous efforts and defeated 12 jade dragons!
Joking aside, the purity and the mineral composition of the water, the presence of woods, and the lack of pollution in rural areas make Japanese waters unique and perfect for whiskey production.
Barley has always been imported from Scotland, although lately many distilleries have begun to cultivate the raw material themselves or source it from local farmers to increase the typicality of the final product.
When the barley has been malted and kilned, it is blended with water and mashed to produce wort, a sweet, fermentable sugar.
The mashing process often employs traditional wooden vessels, known as washbacks, which impart a unique character to the whisky.
Fermentation and Distillation
The wort is then fermented by adding carefully selected yeast strains. Fermentation can last anywhere from 48 to 72 hours, during which the yeast transforms the sugars into alcohol. This produces a liquid called “wash,” with an alcohol content of 7-10%.
The wash undergoes a two-stage distillation process, first in a copper pot still called a wash still, followed by a spirit still. This double distillation refines the spirit, concentrating flavors and increasing its alcohol content.
Aging and Bottling
Whisky gets its color, 80% of its flavor, and complexity by being matured in oak casks. The Japanese masters of wood are real barrel sommeliers.
They are among the most attentive and sensitive experts in the barrel selection sector. And here too we have a peculiarity: apart from the classes of barrels used to refine American Bourbon, Rye, Sherry, and the most disparate wines, the Japanese use barrels made with the precious and very rare Japanese Mizunara oak.
This type of Japanese oak takes 200 years to reach maturity and be able to be cut. The whiskey that rests in this wood is imbued with soft flavors of eucalyptus, anise, elderberry, spices, and resin.
The minimum aging period is three years, although many distilleries let their elixirs rest much longer to find fullness, roundness and aromatic development.
Once the desired aging period has passed, the whisky is blended or bottled as a single malt, ready to be savored by enthusiasts worldwide.
A Spirited History: Who Invented Japanese Whisky
The story of Japanese whisky begins in the early 20th century with two pioneering visionaries, Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii. Taketsuru, the “father of Japanese whisky,” studied distillation techniques in Scotland and brought his newfound knowledge back to Japan.
Torii, the future creator of Suntory, saw the promise of Japanese whisky in 1923 and formed a partnership with Taketsuru to open Japan’s first whisky distillery, Yamazaki.
In 1934, Taketsuru left Suntory to establish his own distillery, Nikka, in the northern region of Hokkaido. With the foundation of these two iconic distilleries, the stage was set for the flourishing of Japanese whisky as a world-renowned spirit.
Producing Zones and Styles
Japan’s whisky distilleries are scattered across the country, each drawing upon their unique regional characteristics to create distinct styles of whisky. Some of the most renowned producing zones include:
Yamazaki, founded in Osaka in 1923, is not only Japan’s oldest distillery, but also the origin of Japanese whisky.
Founded by Shinjiro Torii, the distillery is situated at the convergence of three rivers, providing access to the soft, mineral-rich water essential for whisky production.
The region’s unique climate, with its warm, humid summers and freezing winters, lends itself well to the aging process, producing smooth, nutty, rich, and crisp whiskies with a beautiful spicy undertone.
Yamazaki’s signature single malts are known for their complexity and depth, often featuring notes of red fruits, honey, and a subtle oakiness.
Tucked away in the verdant Japanese Alps, Hakushu distillery is surrounded by a lush, forested landscape that plays an essential role in shaping its whiskies. Established in 1973, Hakushu benefits from the pristine waters of the Ojira River and a cool climate, allowing for a longer maturation period. The whiskies produced here are characterized by a delicate smokiness, green, herbal notes, and a refreshing, forest-like quality. Hakushu’s offerings range from unpeated expressions to those with a more pronounced peaty character, appealing to a wide array of whisky enthusiasts.
Founded in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru himself, Yoichi distillery is situated on the northern island of Hokkaido. The coastal location and the use of traditional coal-fired stills, a rarity in modern whisky production, result in a distinctive, robust, and maritime character in Yoichi whiskies. These expressions often showcase bold flavors reminiscent of Scottish Islay whiskies, with notes of sea spray, brine, and peat smoke balanced by a fruity sweetness and a touch of spice.
Nikka’s second distillery, Miyagikyo, is nestled in the serene and picturesque valley of Miyagi. Established in 1969, the distillery was carefully chosen for its abundant natural beauty and access to the pristine waters of the Nikkawa and Hirosegawa rivers. The whiskies crafted at Miyagikyo are known for their elegant, fruity, and floral profiles, with a gentle touch of peat. Aromas of orchard fruits, citrus, and subtle spices harmonize with the delicate floral undertones, creating a refined and sophisticated sensory experience.
Chichibu, a relatively young distillery founded in 2008, has quickly gained a reputation for its innovative and experimental approach to whisky making. Located in the Saitama Prefecture, this distillery is driven by the passion of its founder, Ichiro Akuto, who represents a new generation of Japanese whisky makers. The whiskies produced at Chichibu showcase a harmonious balance of Japanese and Western influences, with bold, rich flavors and a refined complexity. With a focus on small-batch production and an adventurous spirit, Chichibu is known for its wide range of cask finishes, including wine, rum, and Madeira casks, which add unique dimensions to the final expressions..
Hombo Shuzo Distillery
Hombo Shuzo, a venerable Japanese company with a long history in alcoholic beverage production, entered the whisky world with the establishment of the Mars Shinshu Distillery. Nestled at 798 meters (2,618 feet) above sea level in the Nagano Prefecture, Mars Shinshu enjoys the title of Japan’s highest distillery.
The altitude, coupled with the region’s cool climate and pristine water sources, creates an ideal environment for whisky production. Mars Shinshu whiskies are characterized by their soft, mellow flavors and a gentle, lingering sweetness. The distillery offers a range of expressions, from unpeated and lightly peated to more heavily peated whiskies, catering to a variety of palates.
Fuji Gotemba Distillery
Situated in the shadow of the iconic Mount Fuji, the Fuji Gotemba Distillery benefits from an awe-inspiring backdrop and exceptional natural resources. Drawing water from underground springs fed by the mountain’s snowmelt, the distillery is blessed with some of the purest water in Japan.
The high altitude and cooler temperatures of the region result in a slower maturation process, allowing the whiskies to develop nuanced, intricate flavors. Fuji Gotemba is known for its smooth, elegant single malts, with a delicate balance of fruity and floral notes, underpinned by a gentle sweetness from the use of bourbon and sherry casks. The distillery also produces grain whiskies, utilizing both column stills and a rare set of Coffey stills, further diversifying its range of exceptional offerings.
The Kurayoshi Distillery, located in Tottori Prefecture, is a great example of the inventive energy and attention to quality that characterizes the Japanese whiskey sector. Perhaps it is one of the most sincere and true artisan realities, one of the few that manages to imprint a crazy salty mark on every bottle.
Surrounded by abundant natural beauty, the distillery benefits from the pristine waters of the Daisen Mountains, which flow through volcanic rock, providing an exceptional source of mineral-rich water for whisky production.
Kurayoshi Distillery, owned by the Matsui Shuzo Company, is committed to small-batch production, ensuring meticulous attention to detail and the highest level of craftsmanship. The whiskies produced here are aged in a variety of casks, including bourbon barrels, sherry casks, and Mizunara oak, resulting in an impressive range of flavors and textures.
The Kurayoshi expressions are known for their delicate balance of fruit, floral, and spice notes, with a hint of the region’s characteristic minerality.
The Kurayoshi Distillery is the darling of hardcore aficionados of ethereal, hard, pure whisky.
And it’s also one of my favorites; I’m not afraid to admit it.
The products are expensive, it’s true, but they don’t have crazy prices, and the search for stylistic perfection and the caress of the wood never override the freshness and purity of the malt.
The range of distillates is wide, accurate and ranges from mature, nutty and decadent whiskeys to the more ethereal and pungent ones.
Award for the bravest distillery.
The Symphony of Flavors and Scents
Japanese whiskies are renowned for their diverse and intricate flavor profiles. The master blenders meticulously craft each expression, harmonizing various elements to create a truly remarkable sensory experience.
Make a paint of Fruity and Floral echoes
Many Japanese whiskies exhibit delicate fruity and floral notes, reminiscent of orchard fruits, citrus, cherry blossoms, and roses. These lighter flavors are often the result of the distillery’s choice of yeast strains and the specific wood used for aging.
A Oath of Oak and Vanilla
The influence of oak casks is undeniable in Japanese whisky. American bourbon barrels and sherry casks impart sweet, warm flavors of vanilla, caramel, and dried fruits. Japanese Mizunara oak adds an exotic touch, with notes of sandalwood, coconut, and oriental spices.
A Poem of Peat and Smoke
While not as heavily peated as their Scottish counterparts, some Japanese whiskies do incorporate peat, lending a smoky, earthy character to the spirit. This is often achieved through the use of peated barley or aging in casks that previously held peated whiskies.
The sound of Umami and the Sea
The indelible trademark in every bottle of high quality whiskey is the subtle and lysergic presence of a human trail. It’s a savory, mouthwatering sensation that adds depth and complexity to the flavor profile.
Maritime notes of salt, seaweed, and iodine can also be found, particularly in whiskies from coastal distilleries like Yoichi.
The distilleries we’ve explored in this article represent just a small sample of the extraordinary craftsmanship and dedication that go into creating this esteemed spirit.
We know that throughout Japan there are 26 distilleries, but these are the ones we have visited and are probably the most important or at least known, but we will visit the others soon.
So stay tuned!