Japanese Whisky

Japanese Whisky

Despite only a handful of distilleries and less than a century of history, Japanese Whisky has quickly earned a devoted western following thanks to its competitive production standards and unique flavour profiles. Ranging from light and fruity to smoky and bold, Japanese whiskies offer an all-encompassing experience for both novices and aficionados alike.

History & Origins

It’s no secret that Japanese Whiskey takes much of its inspiration and quality standards from Scotland, right down to adopting the Scottish spelling. But while Scotland took centuries to develop its complex whisky identity, Japan fast-tracked and, by the end of the 20th century, joined the world’s leading whisky purveyors.

Although whisky has been distilled and consumed in Japan since the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1920s that it set its sights beyond the domestic market. At the time Japan’s whisky industry was largely driven by the whisky houses Suntory and Nikka, overseen by Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru respectively. Born into a family of sake makers, Masataka Taketsuru had taken a keen interest in the art of spirit distilling, and by the end of World War I found himself in Scotland as a representative for his company.

There he studied all things whisky, from the history to distillation methods, and even took chemistry courses at the University of Glasgow. Upon his return to Japan, Taektsuru connected with up-and-coming import entrepreneur Shinjiro Torii and founded the Yamazaki Distillery under the company name Kotobukiya. In 1934 Taketsuru left the Kotobukiya company to establish his own, Dai Nippon Kaju, under which he built the Yoichi distillery.

If none of these names ring a bell for you, don’t fret, as they’ve been rebranded and renamed multiple times throughout the proceeding decades. For example, Kotobukiya was first renamed Suntory, and then Beam Suntory in 2014.

How Is Japanese Whisky Distilled?

As with Scotch, Japanese Whiskey is largely comprised of malted barley, which is mashed and twice-distilled in pot stills, after which column-distilled grain whiskies may be blended in for single malts. The whisky is then wood-aged in either Mizunara oak, American oak, or Sherry casks. It’s not uncommon for many distilleries to import peat from Scotland for authentic Scotch-style smoking.

Japan’s distilleries operate independently of one another, which means little to no collaborations or blending of malts from different distilleries. Internal innovation is key when it comes to Japanese Whisky, and it’s not unusual for distilleries owned and operated under one company to produce whiskies in a variety of flavors and price points. One example of this is Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery, which boasts seven pot still models, five types of oak casks for aging, and both wood and steel fermenters, resulting in over 70 different whisky possibilities.

Key Japanese Whisky Terms To Know

1. Ji-Whisky

Ji-Whisky is essentially a craft whisky, as it is only distilled locally.

2. Pure Malt

Coined by the Nikka company, the term “pure malt” refers to a blended malt that is similar to the blended malts made in Scotland. Pure malts contain a blend of pure malted barely, and are distilled in pot stills.

3. Mizuwari

Mizuwari is what you would ask for if you wanted whisky and water, a common pairing in Japan.

4. Mizunara Cask

Mizunara casks are constructed from Mongolian Oak, which is indigenous to Japan and belongs to the same family of American and European Oaks. Because Mizunara wood is prone to leaks and damage due to its soft, porous material, most distilleries choose to finish their whiskies in Mizunara casks in order to deepen the flavours.

5. Shochu Cask

Shochu is distilled from rice, barley, buckwheat, and sugar derived from cane or sweet potatoes. This traditional Japanese spirit is aged between three months to three years in American Oak barrels, with many more Japanese spirits being rested, aged, or finished in Shochu casks.

6. Oyuwari

If you wanted whisky with hot water, rather than cold, you would order an Oyuwari, which is similar in many ways to the western hot toddy.

7. Haiboru

Haiboru means “highball” in Japanese, and is an extremely popular drink–so much so that you can find canned Haiboru at numerous grocery and convenience stores in Japan.

How Can You Drink Japanese Whiskey?

The highball is the most common way of consuming whisky in Japan. However, most whisky experts would agree that Japanese Whiskey, like most whiskies from around the world, can be taken neat, on the rocks, or in countless cocktails (see the next section).

Japanese Whiskey additionally pairs extremely well with Japanese dishes, and is often showcased alongside menu recommendations.

Japanese Whisky Cocktail Recipes To Try

japanese-whisky-tokyo-sidecar

Tokyo Sidecar

Similar to the classic Sidecar cocktail, the Japanese Sidecar is extremely easy to make and irresistibly lovely to both sip and look at.
Prep Time 5 mins
Course Drinks
Cuisine Japanese
Servings 1

Equipment

  • cocktail shaker
  • cocktail strainer
  • chilled glass

Ingredients
  

  • 2 ounces Japanese Whisky
  • 0.75 ounces Cointreau
  • 1/2 tsp Yuzu Juice

Instructions
 

  • Combine all the ingredients in the cocktail shaker
  • Fill the cocktail shaker with ice, and shake
  • Strain in to a chilled glass
Keyword japan, japanese whisky, whisky cocktail
japanese-whisky-maple-cocktail

Japanese Maple Cocktail

Lovers of autumn and/or traditional Whisky Sours will love this smooth, elegantly sweet take on an old classic.
Prep Time 5 mins
Course Drinks
Cuisine Japanese
Servings 1

Equipment

  • cocktail shaker
  • Fine Strainer
  • chilled glass

Ingredients
  

  • 1.75 ounces Japanese Whisky
  • 0.75 ounces Lemon Juice
  • 0.5 ounces Maple Syrup
  • 0.5 ounces Egg White

Instructions
 

  • Add all the ingredients to the cocktail shaker and shake
  • Add ice and shake again
  • Fine strain in to a chilled glass
Keyword japan, japanese whisky, whisky, whisky cocktail

Toki Americano

Often described as a Japanese twist on an Italian cocktail, the Toki Americano is the perfect blend of sweet, bitter, and savoury.
Prep Time 5 mins
Course Drinks
Cuisine Japanese
Servings 1

Equipment

  • Mixing Glass
  • cocktail strainer

Ingredients
  

  • 1.5 ounces Japanese Whisky
  • 0.75 ounces Cocchi Americano
  • 0.75 ounces Amaro Nonino
  • 3 drops Grapefruit bitters
  • 1 Lemon wheel

Instructions
 

  • Combine all the ingredients in a mixing glass, apart from the lemon wheel
  • Add ice and stir the mixture
  • Strain in to a chilled glass
  • Add the lemon wheel to garnish
Keyword japan, japanese whisky, whisky, whisky cocktail
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