Discover the Art of Craftsmanship: A Journey Through Japanese Whisky
Even though Japanese whisky doesn’t have the same long history as Scotch, it has caused an alcoholic earthquake of biblical proportions that has changed everything. Experts now agree that Japanese whiskey is one of the best in the world, one of the most elegant and rich, and a distillate of rare finesse. The legendary Jim Murray said that the 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask was the best of 2015. Every year, Japanese distilleries win a lot of medals.
Yet the production method of this distillate is the Scottish one. So much so that the inventor of Japanese whiskey, the legendary Masataka Taketsuru, went to Scotland to study chemistry and learn the art of distilling malt, then returned to Japan to found the Nikka distilleries. Why has it had such global success, and how does it differ from Scotch whisky?
There isn’t just one reason; there are many factors involved: some cultural, some historical, and some physical, real climatic differences that make us talk about terroir. But everything starts with the Japanese people’s never-ending quest for perfection. This quest for formal perfection has found its best expression in whisky, which is very easy to shape and change.
Every detail, every slight variation, has been calculated to add a nuance, take advantage of a specific weather condition, the scent of Japanese Mizunara oaks, or simple thermodynamic laws. Needless to say, between Scotch and Japanese whiskies, it’s a war, a fight for primacy. Bourbon and Rye are too different in DNA, let alone the Canadian, which is not in the least comparable. So for convenience, we will compare these two heavyweights to highlight the differences and thus discover the profile of Japanese whisky.
Differences between Scotch and Japanese whiskey
The first obvious difference is the number of distilleries: Scotland has 128 while Japan has only 8.
The second difference that jumps out at the nose and the palate is the maniacal care that the Japanese put into it, it is a point of pride, not just a desire to produce perfect distillates. So, there is a different, and also aesthetic, way of making whisky, which can be made from a single malt or a blend of malts.
In reality, what matters is the result, the harmony, the balance, and the pleasantness, so let’s say that the distilleries are not obsessed with single malts like the Scots. Many Highlands and Speyside single malts focus solely on the purity of the malt, the primordial spartan elegance of the distillate, while Islay seeks the link, the perfect blend of peat and malt, and the Japanese chisel and work tirelessly with woods.
This aesthetic investigation is most likely a reflection of the Japanese soul’s constant search for inner peace, imbued with animism and love for nature. Not surprisingly, three of the most important distilleries, Yamazaki and its subsidiary Hakushu and also Mars Shinshu are immersed in nature.
Yamazaki is mammoth, but all submerged in greenery, while the real pearl is the Hakushu distillery, nestled in the Japanese Alps at an altitude of 700 meters above sea level, not far from the city of Hokuto, and the name says it all. The Mars Shinshu Distillery was built even higher, 800 meters, in Miyada, Nagano Prefecture.
But this peculiarity is not accidental: the fact that they are in the mountains makes the air lighter and fresher, and therefore the boiling temperature is lowered. As a result, the aromas and flavors are much finer and subtler, floral and, most importantly, herbaceous, and many of the more delicate molecules are not burned. Just taste the Hakushu single malt 12 to immerse yourself in a forest full of scents.
Peat is another focal point around which there is a lot of play. The distilleries of Islay, Jura, Talisker, Highland Park, and others in Speyside live on peat, also for environmental reasons, given that on many islands there are not many trees to use to fuel the ovens. Japanese whiskeys are generally not peated.
There are some that are smoked, and some that are similar to some of the Chichibu distilleries, but no Japanese distillery produces only hardcore peat. Instead, they use peat as an aesthetic means of adding an elegant whiff, but it is not a “lifestyle”.
The importance of sake for Japanese single malt
Another huge difference has to do with culture and production. The history of sake is very important to Japanese producers, who were the first to study and make yeasts. Because they have been making alcohol for more than a century, Japanese distilleries have a unique and deep understanding of how yeast is made.
They experiment with various types of yeasts, grow them at home, and jealously guard them; in this way, they have created a unique and peculiar gustatory-fermentative arsenal for each distillery. Scottish distilleries lack this foresight, though it should be noted that on malt, it is still their first, given that the Japanese buy large percentages of malt, particularly that which has already been peated to produce.
Returning to the yeasts, this initiative has allowed the Japanese to be more daring during fermentation, and we report the case of the Hakushu distillery, which ferments its washes for up to three days, favoring the proliferation of particular lactobacilli, which are responsible for the freshness and the herbaceous flavors so sharp.
Emblematic is the fact that Matsushiro was a chemist and that his family had been producing sake for generations: his curiosity and the typical Japanese technological expertise did the rest.
Aging in wood becomes art
The circle, and indeed the barrel, closes when we add to this fermentation mastery the use of aging in wood that borders on Zen perfection. The care and veneration they have for barrels borders on a collecting frenzy. Yamazaki usually has no less than 15,000 casks in stock, each one unique (sherry, bourbon), used for various wines, and then there are the legendary casks made from Mizunara oak.
A particular oak that takes 200 years or more to grow up to the age of cutting, but which above all releases balsamic aromas and flavors of incense, eucalyptus, anise, and myrrh. If the Magi were coopers, they would only work the Mizunara, so to speak.
In any case, it is unusual to see such zeal for the refinement of such small batches, such meticulous refinements studied down to the smallest detail, which vary in flavor and aging by a few millimeters and are assembled like flavor puzzles. Not only for single malts, but also for blended scotches, which have a care and precision that makes old Johnnie Walker’s blends seem all too basic and cut with a hatchet.
But there is a catch: Japanese distilleries can afford to pay this much attention because of one simple fact. The average price of their whiskeys is significantly higher than Scottish distillates. If you buy a good bottle of Scotch whiskey for 50-60 euros, for an entry level Japanese whiskey like Yamazaki you will have to pay 65-70.
Hakushu’s 12-year-old single malt is truly amazing, but the starting product costs 125 euros. It’s certainly worth it, but our budgets are completely different. To give you an idea, consider the prices of the Highland Park (amazing, but not exactly a gift), but skipping the first step of the 12 years, the 18 Highland (130 euros) corresponds to the Japanese 12 as a price.
Organoleptic characteristics of Japanese whisky
We can’t say much about the taste of such a wide-ranging product in just a few words, but we can point out some styles.
The Yamazaki distillery prefers a glowing, fleshy, and spicy development, with lots of red fruit, endless umeboshi, excellent harmony, velvety power and floral and oxidized arabesques that flow into umami.
Hibiki represents the dapper boutique of Suntory, where elegant and very pleasant blended products are studied and produced, real Zen poems, where every little detail and flavor is dosed with great precision.
Hakushu whiskey is all played on green tones: herbaceous, undergrowth, pungent fruit, lemongrass galore, sharp fruit, and a sleepy and delicate tone of peat to give rhythm, aromatic thrust, and spartan elegance. The blend of green and smoke is splendid, handled in an exemplary manner.
Chichibu distillery whiskey is decisive, fresh, and full of unique suggestions: it ranges from miso to cherry blossoms, Sichuan pepper, to more oxidized tones with dried fruit and herbs, and still has cheesy notes due to long leavening.
It is certainly among the most interesting, traditionally innovative, disassembles barrels and recreates them at will, mixes, dares and blends wood and malt as if they were alchemists. But the elegance and cleanliness of Chichibu distillates are unique, thanks to courage and a bright personality.
Nikka has a clean style, but it pushes a lot on power and intensity, much like a bull, but it is perhaps even cleaner and less worked in terms of aromatic precision and cut. Not spartan, but less built than the Yamazaki, we can safely say we are the polar opposite of our great rival from Kyoto. More adherent to the style of the founder, Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist, who aimed more at the purity of the distillate, in a very Scottish style.
What Japanese whiskey is not is Scottish impetuosity: you won’t hear the wild salty call of the sea or even that of peat.
History of Japanese whiskey: who invented it?
There are two figures who gave rise to the birth of whiskey in Japan. The spiritual father, Masataka Taketsuru, studied, absorbed, and reworked the technique, and then Shinjiro Torii instead created the first distillery in Japan in 1923, the Yamazaki, whose beverage production and distribution company has become the giant that is Suntory .
Let’s start with Masataka Taketsuru, the man who started making Japanese whiskey. In 1918, he went to Scotland to study chemistry in Glasgow. He was determined to find out everything there was to know about Scotch. We are talking about blended, given that the first single malt in Scotland was produced in 1963 by Glenfiddich.
Bold Masataka noted that Japan looks a lot like Scotland: both are rich in waterways, have peat, are surrounded by the sea, and are green. He started working for a couple of Lowland distilleries and then moved on to Campbeltown’s Hazelburn, which would later become Springbank. After these experiences, he decided to get married and return to Japan in 1920. They were two such intense years that when he returned he already had very clear ideas.
He was hired by Kotobukiya, the company owned by Shinjiro Torii’s family, which later became the giant Suntory. Shinjiro Torii immediately understood the potential of whisky, which in reality had already been produced since the mid-nineteenth century in Japan but had not yet become a high-quality product. So Shinjiro, Japan’s first official whiskey distillery, was established in Kyoto in 1923, but the ideas came from Masataka, the distillate’s chemist and philosopher, who disagreed.
Masataka, in fact, wanted to fully recreate the original Scottish conditions and had proposed locating a distillery in Hokkaido’s forested and mountainous northern region, where it frequently snows. On the contrary, Shinjiro, like a good merchant who thinks of the profit-cost ratio, chose a place rich in water that was also easily accessible, in a rich and populous area. In any case, Yamazaki started making distillates with the idea that they should be able to fit the tastes of the Japanese people.
Masataka obviously didn’t agree, and so the two “divorced,” and in 1934 he founded the Dai Nippon Kaju K.K. distillery, in Yoichi, Hokkaido, the northernmost island of all Japan, but also the one that most resembled, according to him to his beloved Scotland. Later, it will later become sold and become the legendary Nikka.
Even today, Yamazaki and Nikka represent the two opposite poles of single-malt production from the Rising Sun, and as we have already said, the styles are still those of the two founders. The first is sumptuous and alluring; the second is contemptuous and heroic.
Critics may argue that the Japanese one is a clone of Scotch. And it’s true, but this clone has evolved in the land of manga, where tradition, ancient practices, and technology have coexisted since time immemorial, creating a fertile substrate for the growth of a unique distillate that is fighting on equal terms with the Scottish giant. Samurai against Highlander, Tom Cruise against Mel Gibson—a challenge from the past—but in the meantime, we can drink both and enjoy it without prejudice.
How to drink Japanese whiskey
Here a thorny parenthesis opens, but one that needs to be examined once again to understand how much love the Japanese place in ceremonies and attention to forms, including social ones. Whiskey is always drunk without ice, otherwise the palate loses sensitivity, and at most with a drop of water to bring out the most delicate floral and fruity aromas.
However, in Japan, the whisky ceremony has become an art form, and there are bartenders who are masters at sculpting ice with razor blades, ice picks, and knives. They’re worth seeing in action; they’re spectacular, but that doesn’t mean you have to freeze a $60 glass to watch the show.