If I had to choose one country whose whisky has stood out the most in recent years, it would be Japan. That's a bold claim, considering the Western origins of this barrel-aged spirit. Less than two centuries ago, whisky was completely foreign to the island country.
But that has changed completely. The rapid growth of the Japanese whisky industry in recent years is nothing short of remarkable.
And it's not just the ordinary stuff you find on the shelves of your favorite whisky bar. Several Japanese whiskies are among the most expensive whiskies in the world. The demand for Japanese whisky has also catapulted Japan to 4th place among the world's leading whisky producers.
Read on to learn how Japan has gained prominence in the world of whisky.
The Origin of Japanese Whisky
If you have been following our series on the origin of whisky, you probably already know the answer to the age-old question: where does whisky come from?
But how did it come to Japan?
The story goes that in 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry entered the port of Tokyo with a small fleet of state-of-the-art warships to 'convince' Japan to open its ports to American merchant ships.
Handscroll of US Commodore Matthew Perry's second visit to Japan in 1854
After the Treaty of Kanagawa was concluded in 1854, Perry's crew left the Japanese a 110-gallon barrel of whisky as a parting gift. They thoroughly enjoyed the dark, mysterious spirit. But there was a problem: no one knew how to recover the contents of the barrel.
The first attempts at whisky production did not go well. Without technical know-how, production of all sorts of dangerous distillates were produced in the decades that followed.
Japan's First Whisky Distillery
Lack of expertise in whisky production was not the only thing that concerned the Japanese. Due to the Edo period (250 years of isolation from the rest of the world), they were far behind the West in terms of infrastructure and development.
Therefore, Japan sent ambassadors and scientists to Europe and North America to learn about modern governance, science and other fields. In 1916, a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru joined Settsu Shuzo, a liquor company that wanted to get into the whisky business.
In an effort to replicate Western whisky from the West, he mixed grain alcohol with all sorts of ingredients including juice, spices, and even perfume!
As the experiments proved unsuccessful, the company decided to send Taketsuru to the University of Glasgow to formally study whisky making. Taketsuru attended the classes in 1918 and followed by short stints at two Speyside distilleries gave him much-needed experience.
In 1920, he married Rita Cowan and moved with her to Campbeltown, Scotland. Here he completed another internship at the now-defunct Hazelburn Distillery, where he was able to continue his whisky education would advance further.
Japanese Whisky Pioneers: Masataka Taketsuru and Rita Cowan
After a year, the Taketsurus traveled back to Japan. Taketsuru resumed his work at Settsu and was ready to get whisky production going. However, the company was no longer interested in investing in a whisky distillery, so Taketsuru decided to quit.
But Taketsuru was not to remain unemployed for long. Shinjiro Torii, a Japanese businessman, had heard about Taketsuru.
Torii's company Kotobukiya was opening a distillery in Yamazaki and wanted Taketsuru to work for them.
Kotobukiya was a thriving wine import and distribution company. Their original product, Akadama (a sweet wine liqueur), had become a success domestically. Torii now wanted to get into the whisky business.
The two men agreed to a lucrative ten-year contract that would become one of the most significant moments in the history of Japanese whisky. Taketsuru's leadership was crucial to the development of the famed Yamazaki distillery. It opened in 1923 as the first operating whisky distillery in Japan.
The Early Days of Japanese Whisky
Like most whisky success stories (link), the Yamazaki distillery had a rough start. The first five years were spent tweaking the production process and searching for the perfect formula that would produce a whisky with character and quality.
Related: The Success Story of Jack Daniel’s
In 1929, the company launched its first product - Suntory Whisky 'Shirofuda' or Suntory Whisky 'White Label'. Although it was the first authentic Japanese whisky, the product was not well received in the domestic market as consumers preferred Scotch whiskies.
Torii was not pleased about this. So he demoted Taketsuru to beer manager at a factory in Yokohama.
With only a year left on his contract, Taketsuru decided his time was up and quit.
But as luck would have it, one of Rita Cowan's English students was married to a wealthy investor.
He learned of Taketsuru's whisky skills and his unemployed status. He became one of the first financiers of Taketsuru's new whisky distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido.
The company Taketsuru founded was called Dai Nippon Kajuu K.K.: the "Great Japan Fruit Juice Company." Although the name may sound strange for a whisky producer, the company did in fact trade in fruits--specifically apple products to generate running capital.
Yoichi Distillery fired up its stills for the first time in 1936 and launched its first product, Nikka Whisky, four years later.
While Taketsuru was founding Nikka, Torii was pushing ahead with his own whisky company.
Suntory found domestic success in Shinjiro Torii in 1937 with the introduction of Kakubin, which would later become one of the best-selling Japanese whiskies in the world.
Yamazaki expanded Suntory's whisky offerings in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1961, Torii's son, Keizo Saji, became Suntory's second president and Yamazaki's second master blender.
He oversaw the construction of the Hakushu and Chita distilleries in the 1970s, paving the way for more experimental blends. Until the 1980s, whisky produced at Yamazaki was bottled as Suntory blends, but Saji pioneered the distillery's entry into single malt whiskies in 1984 with the introduction of Suntory Single Malt Whisky Yamazaki. This was followed in 1992 by the Yamazaki 18 Years Old.
Japanese Whisky and the Military
If there is one constant in this whisky series, it is the impact the World Wars had on whisky production. While most countries such as Scotland and America imposed severe restrictions on the whisky industry (grain was preserved for food or most distilleries repurposed to serve the army), the Japanese whisky industry was spared.
The second-largest whisky producer, Nikka, found itself in a particularly precarious position when the war drums began to beat.
The Yoichi factory had only begun distilling in the mid-1930s, and almost immediately Japan became involved in a war.
Fortunately for Nikka, the Japanese military loved whisky. It had a similar status in the Imperial Navy as rum had in the British Navy.
Since the conflict made it impossible to import the drink, Japanese whisky makers were tasked with quenching the thirst of soldiers. As a result, they were given military supplier status and thus priority access to fuel, barley and other supplies necessary for whisky production.
In fact, Nikka had been making losses, but that changed in 1939 due to demand from the military.
The Rise of the Japanese Whisky Industry
Japanese whisky was initially consumed mainly by the military. Only gradually did whisky become more popular among the general population of Japan.
High-end Japanese whisky and scotch were popular among the upper class, while the less expensive products found favor among the working class.
In 1955, Torys bars and Suntory bars opened throughout Tokyo and Osaka. These bars focused on affordable whisky and resembled English pubs. They helped whisky spread to all corners of Japan and cocktails like whisky highballs became very popular.
This growth in the mid-20th century saw the rise of more new whisky producers. The legendary Karuizawa distillery began production in 1956. Miyagikyo became Nikka's second distillery in 1969.
Suntory followed four years later with the Hakushu and Chita distilleries. The Kirin beer company established Fuji Gotemba in the same year. Finally, the Mars Shinshu distillery began operations in 1985.
Japanese Whisky Industry Goes Bust
Domestic whisky consumption and sales continued to rise, peaking in the early 1980s. Toward the end of the decade, however, a bleaker picture emerged.
The Japanese government had long imposed protectionist tax rates against imported spirits. There were also calls for spirits to be taxed according to alcohol content.
These reforms also allowed for a lower tax rate on shochu - and at a time when it was becoming more popular with younger drinkers. All of these changes hurt the market for Japanese whisky. And the worst was yet to come.
Economic stagnation in Japan led to a period dubbed the "Lost 10 Years" Whisky was now derided by some as a symbol of decline.
At this time, distilleries began to close, starting with Hanyu. In 2000, they sold their remaining stock and equipment. Karuizawa distillery closed the following year and Mars Shinshu shortly after.
These events marked the bottom of the decline in Japanese whisky sales. The remaining producers continued to make high-quality distillates, but production volumes were limited.
At this time, however, there were early signs of positive change.
The Comeback of Japanese Whisky
As mentioned in the introduction, Japanese whisky has experienced a resurgence.
But when did this development begin? Although no one can say for sure when the resurgence of the Japanese whisky industry began, there is one moment that really stands out.
In 2008, Yoichi 1987, a 10-year-old single malt, was named the world's best single malt at the World Whiskies Awards (WWA), and Hikbiki 30 was named the world's best-blended whisky.
Since then, it's been one award after another.
- Taketsuru 17 Year Old (named after the Nikki pioneer) was named World's Best Blended Malt whisky at the World Whiskies Awards (2014, 2015 and 2019).
- Kirin Fuji-Gotemba Single Grain 25 Year Old won the title of World's Best Grain Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards in 2016 and 2017.
- Suntory Hakushu was named World's Best Single Malt at the 2018 and 2020 World Whiskies Awards.
- Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 was awarded "World Whisky of the Year" in the 2015 edition of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible with 97.5 points out of 100. This is the first time in the 11-year history of the Whisky Bible that Japanese whisky has received this prestigious award.
With all these accolades, the demand for premium Japanese whisky has increased rapidly.
Japan is Running Out of Whisky
The Japanese whisky market is facing a very unique problem. Producers are struggling to keep up with the overwhelming demand for their premium brands.
The booming demand for Japanese whisky has come at a high price, no pun intended. As mentioned earlier, the slump in the 1990s led to a significant drop in production.
Over the past decade, there have not been enough stocks to meet demand. Whiskies with an age statement are being replaced by NAS (no age statement) brands.
There is hope that the market will see a return of great whiskies like Nikka's Taketsuru 21-Year or Hakashu 12 will return to the market, but only time will tell. For now, you can still buy age-stamped whiskies that are no longer being made - just at significant markups over the original prices.