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Short History of Japanese Whisky

Updated: Mar 23

Japanese whisky bottlings with Mount Fuji in the background

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Less than ten years ago, Japanese whisky was an almost unknown concept for many whisky drinkers. With the rising interest in Scottish single malt whiskies, whisky enthusiasts started to look to other parts of the world to find the next big thing. Enter Japanese whisky!


Even though the tradition of making whisky in Japan dates back to the 1930s, it wasn't until 2015, when Jim Murray awarded Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 the title of 'the best whisky in the world', that Japanese whisky became highly sought after. Things got out of hand, and Murray has often been blamed/credited as the person who started a boom that the Japanese whisky industry wasn't prepared for.


Japanese whiskies from age statements to non-age statement expressions

Image by The Whisky Ardvark - The discontinuation of age-statement Japanese whiskies


With only a limited amount of Japanese whisky bottled and produced, many expressions sold at a reasonable price disappeared quickly from specialist whisky retailers' shelves. Restocking soon became impossible. In response to the demand, Japanese whisky producers had to discontinue most of the age-statement expressions and introduce non-age-statement versions of their whiskies to have something to offer consumers.


But with great demand comes a boom of new distilleries to try and catch the trendy wave.

Japan was home to over 50 whisky-producing distilleries in 2024, up from less than ten before the boom. Once closed, iconic distilleries like Hanyu and Karuizawa have been resurrected, and more are established yearly.



 

Japanese Whisky Industry


Many Japanese whisky producers and distilleries have a long history of making alcohol. Many families/companies that venture into whisky have produced other beverages, including sake, beer, or wine, for decades, if not centuries. The word 'Shuzo' in many company names in Japan can be roughly translated into 'Brewing Company' - referring to the tradition of sake or beer brewing the company has been involved with.


Japanese whisky is known for its attention to detail—an art form with complexity as delicate as origami. Like Irish whiskey distillery operations, one can produce multiple types of whisky under one roof. Many Japanese distilleries can make different styles of whiskies, ranging from peated to light grain whisky and single malts.


Unlike many Scottish whisky distilleries, Japanese whisky makers are known for their unwillingness to exchange whiskies with each other or sell their spirits to other brands. This practice originated when there were only a few whisky producers in Japan, and they saw each other as rivals (affected by personal crutches). On some occasions, due to the high demand, this has resulted in so-called faux-whisky bottlings, labelled 'Products of Japan', but have resourced some or all of the spirit from abroad from those producers willing to sell their whisky.


The Japanese whisky industry is now showing signs of recovery. With more age-statement whiskies becoming available and the reintroducing of those discontinued, companies can again offer consumers older expressions. That said, many Japanese age-statement expressions might come with a hefty price, which ensures that the industry's history does not repeat itself by selling out short. The prices are also known to inflate on the secondary market.



In 2021, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association rewrote the old lax rules to restrict what can be called Japanese whisky legally and gave companies three years to sort themselves out. The new guidelines will come into effect on the 31st of March, 2024.


Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Under the new guidelines, to be labelled as Japanese whisky, the product has to be made entirely in Japan from malted grains, but unmalted cereal grains (does not include rice) can be included. It must be mashed, distilled, aged in wooden barrels for at least three years, and bottled at no less than 40% ABV in Japan.


Unfortunately, these regulations are just guidelines, not laws. If a company still decides to bottle its 'Japanese whisky' or 'Product of Japan' outside of these limitations, there isn't much that can be done. For those companies which are used to using whisky components produced outside the country's borders, the change in the code of honour is hard to accept. All we can do, is sit and wait which companies will jump on board with the new guidelines to bring unity and transparency to the Japanese whisky industry.



 

The Three Major Figures of Japanese Whisky


Masataka Taketsuru & Nikka


No peak into Japanese whisky history would be complete without mentioning Mr Masataka Taketsuru. He has been credited with the title of 'the father of Japanese whisky' as he was the first whisky distiller in Japan and introduced whisky-making into the beautiful island nation.


Masataka Taketsuru was born in 1894 in Takehara, Hiroshima, to a family making sake since 1733. He was interested in organic chemistry and distilling. In 1918, he embarked on a mission, paid for by the company Settsu Shuzo, to Scotland to study chemistry at the University of Glasgow. Unfortunately, on his arrival, he found out that Settsu Shuzo had abandoned its plans to produce whisky due to the recession caused by The First World War. Thankfully, his newly gained knowledge didn't go to waste when he was contacted by Shinjiro Torii, who owned a company called Kotobukiya Limited (which became known as Suntory).


A year later, Taketsuru started his short apprenticeship at Longmorn Distillery in Speyside, followed by a brief stay in Bo'ness Distillery in the Lowlands. In May 1920, he began his third distillery stay at Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown before returning to Japan later that year. On his two-year visit, he gained two things: the knowledge of how to make whisky and a wife named Jessie Roberta, AKA Rita.


Taketsuru was hired by Torii under a ten-year contract to help plan and build Japan's first whisky distillery, Yamazaki, which fired its first stills in 1923.


Nikka and Masataka Taketsuru

Image by Nikka


After Taketsuru's contract ended, he decided to distance himself from Torii due to artistic differences and founded his own company, Dai Nippon Kaju Co., Ltd., later shortened to Nikka. The first Nippon Kaju distillery was established in 1934 in Yoichi, Hokkaido, named after the location. Taketsuru wanted to make whisky on his terms in his ideal location, which Torii considered a betrayal. To this day, Suntory officially doesn't recognise Masataka Taketsuru as having anything to do with the birth of Japanese whisky, nor the company itself. Talking about shunning with a samurai way!


The second Nikka distillery, Miyagikyo, was established in 1969 to widen the company's whisky range further. By the time Masataka Taketsuru passed away in 1979 at age 85, he had built a sizable company that could produce and bottle multiple types of whiskies just like he had always envisioned.



 

Shinjiro Torii & Suntory


Suntory whisky was founded in 1899 by Shinjiro Torii from a small store in Osaka called Torii Shoten. In 1907, Torii blended and introduced his famous Akadama Port Wine, a sweet grape wine. This achievement enabled him to establish his first plant in 1919 in Osaka and Kotobukiya Limited in 1921. After opening the Yamazaki distillery in 1923, the company released its first whisky in 1929, named 'Suntory Shirofuda, Rare Old Island Whisky'.


Shinjiro Torii built his empire, including the Yamazaki distillery, and opened bars around the country to introduce his highball cocktail, which involved whisky mixed with water.


Image by Beam Suntory


In 1961, Keizo Saji, Torii's son, became the company's second master distiller. A year later, Shinjiro Torii passed away. In 1963, Saji changed the name to Suntory from Kotobukiya Ltd. to Suntory Limited. In the 1970s, a grain distillery, Chita (established in 1972), and another single malt distillery, Hakushu (in 1973), were opened to produce company blends.


Shingo Torii, Shinjiro Torii's grandson, was appointed the master blender in 2002. The Suntory portfolio now includes single malts of Yamazaki and Hakushu, grain whisky Chita, and blends of Kakubin, Hibiki, and Toki. With only a few exceptions, all Suntory whiskies are 43% ABV.


In 2023, Yamazaki distillery and Suntory celebrated their 100th anniversary, counting from when the first Japanese single malt whisky, Yamazaki, distillery opened in 1923.



 

Ichiro Akuto & Chichibu


Ichiro Akuto is the master distiller and blender behind the Chichibu distillery and its owner company, Venture Whisky. Due to his ability to create high-quality whiskies and modernise the Japanese whisky industry norms, he is often called 'the whisky wizard'.


Ichiro's family has a tradition of making sake that goes back 21 generations to 1621, but his grandfather, Isouji Akuto, started importing and blending whiskies under a company called Toa Shuzo in 1948. In 1980, Isouji founded the Hanyu distillery, which operated for 30 years before closing due to bankruptcy in 2000. (The distillery was revived in 2021).


After graduating from the Tokyo University of Agriculture, Ichiro worked as a salesman for Suntory but joined his family business in 1995 at 28. When the Hanyu distillery closed in 2004, Ichiro bought the last remaining casks and formed his company, Venture Whisky Ltd. He later released the famous 58-expression Hanyu Card Series, which gained worldwide recognition.

Ichiro Akuto and Chichibu

Image by Formasup


The foundations for Ichiro's Chichibu#1 distillery were laid in 2007, and the first whisky was distilled in 2008. Chichibu #2 was built next to the original distillery in 2019.


Right from the beginning, Ichiro Akuto established the Chichibu distillery to stand out from the crowd. As the first new distillery founded in Japan in 35 years, Chichibu's small production capacity introduced small-batch distillation to the Japanese whisky industry dominated by big names. By mainly bottling single-cask whiskies with cask strength, Chichibu (and Ichiro) widened the Japanese single-cask releases category—primarily used before to bottle closed distillery whiskies from Karuizawa and Hanyu.


One of Chichibu's secret weapons is its on-site cooperage, which enables the construction of unique barrels. From hogshead barrels with Mizunara oak heads and sherry hogsheads to an array of beer casks and wine barrels, only the sky (and regulations) limit Ichiro's imagination.


Due to his new operating approach, Ichiro has been called the father of modern Japanese whisky. Since becoming involved with whisky, Ichiro has advocated for teamwork and cooperation between Japanese whisky distilleries and encouraged the termination of decade-old crutches between companies. As always, long-standing traditions are difficult to abandon, as they are now viewed as conventional modes of behaviour.


 

Thank you for reading The Whisky Ardvark. Please check out some of our other informative articles listed below.



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