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Whisky production in Japan began around 1870, but the first commercial production was in 1924 upon the opening of the country's first distillery, Yamazaki. Broadly speaking the style of Japanese whisky is more similar to that of Scotch whisky than Irish, American, or Canadian styles of whiskey, and thus the spelling typically follows the Scottish convention (omitting the letter "e").
There are several companies producing whisky in Japan, but the two best-known and most widely available are Suntory and Nikka. Both of these produce blended as well as single malt whiskies and blended malt whiskies, with their main blended whiskies being Suntory kakubin (角瓶, square bottle), and Black Nikka Clear. There are also a large number of special bottlings and limited editions, which are popular in Japan products generally.
Two of the most influential figures in the history of Japanese whisky are Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. Torii was a pharmaceutical wholesaler and the founder of Kotobukiya (later to become Suntory). He started importing western liquor and he later created a brand called "Akadama Port Wine", based on a Portuguese wine which made him a successful merchant. However, he was not satisfied with this success and so he embarked on a new venture which was to become his life's work: making Japanese whisky for Japanese people. Despite the strong opposition from the company's executives, Torii decided to build the first Japanese whisky distillery in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto, an area so famous for its excellent water that the legendary tea master Sen no Rikyū built his tearoom there.
Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru as a distillery executive. Taketsuru had studied the art of distilling in Scotland, and brought this knowledge back to Japan in the early 1920s. Whilst working for Kotobukiya he played a key part in helping Torii establish the Yamazaki Distillery. In 1934 he left Kotobukiya to form his own company—Dainipponkaju—which would later change its name to Nikka. In this new venture he established the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaidō.
There are currently around ten whisky distilleries in Japan, these include:
For some time it was believed by many that whisky made in the Scottish style, but not produced in Scotland, could not possibly measure up to the standards of the traditional Scotch Whisky distilleries. Until fairly recently, the market for Japanese whiskies was almost entirely domestic, though in recent years there have been some exports, particularly to the United States.
Since the 2000s, however, some Japanese whiskies have won awards, including top honors, in international competitions, notably Suntory. At the 2003 International Spirits Challenge, Suntory Yamazaki won a gold medal, and Suntory whiskies continued to win gold medals every year through 2013, with all three malt whiskies winning a trophy (the top prize) in either 2012 (Yamazaki 18 years old and Hakushu 25 years old) or 2013 (Hibiki 21 years old), and Suntory itself winning distiller of the year in 2010, 2012, and 2013.
Further, in recent years a number of blind tastings have been organized by Whisky Magazine, which have included Japanese single malts in the lineup, along with malts from distilleries considered to be among the best in Scotland. On more than one occasion, the results have had Japanese single malts (particularly those of Nikka's Yoichi and Suntory's Yamazaki) scoring higher than their Scottish counterparts.
The production of Japanese whisky began as a conscious effort to recreate the style of Scotch whisky. Pioneers like Taketsuru carefully studied the process of making Scotch whisky, and went to great lengths in an attempt to recreate that process in Japan. The location of Yoichi in Hokkaidō was chosen particularly for its terrain and climate, which were in many ways reminiscent of Scotland (although financial constraints resulted in the first distillery actually being built in the more convenient location of Yamazaki on the main island).
One facet of the style of Japanese whisky comes from the way in which blended whisky is produced, and the differing nature of the industry in Japan. Despite the recent rise of interest in single malt whiskies, the vast proportion of whisky sold in the world is still blended. The requirements of blended whiskies are one of the main driving forces behind the diversity of malts produced by Scotland's distilleries. Typically each distillery will focus on a particular style, and blenders will choose from a wide array of elements offered by all the different distilleries to make their product. While sometimes a particular brand of blended whisky may be owned by a company that also owns one or more distilleries, it is also quite common for trading to take place between the various companies. The components of a blend may involve malt whisky from a number of distilleries, and each of these could conceivably be owned by a different company.
In Japan however a different model is generally adopted. Typically the industry is vertically integrated, meaning whisky companies own both the distilleries and the brands of blended whiskies. These companies are often reluctant to trade with their competitors. So a blended whisky in Japan will generally only contain malt whisky from the distilleries owned by that same company (sometimes supplemented with malts imported from Scottish distilleries).
This clearly means that blenders in Japan have in the past had a significantly reduced palette from which to create their products. It has been suggested that this may have been a limiting factor in the success of Japanese blends, particularly outside of Japan.
As a reaction to this, individual distilleries in Japan have become increasingly more diverse over recent years. It is quite common for a single Japanese distillery to produce a wide range of styles, from the smokey and peaty style of Islay, through the heavily sherried, to the lighter and more delicate floral notes of Speyside. The diversity and innovation to be found in Japanese distilleries may be one of the contributing factors to their recent high profile and acclaim in the global arena.
Japanese whisky is consumed either like Scottish whisky or like Japanese shōchū. The bulk of Japanese blended whisky is consumed in cocktails, notably as whisky highballs (ハイボール haibōru ) (similar to shōchū highballs, known as chūhai), while fine whisky is primarily drunk straight or on the rocks, as with Scottish whisky. Advertising for blended whisky generally features it consumed in a highball, and highballs made with Suntory's Kakubin are branded kaku-hai (カクハイ).
In addition to soda (in a highball), Japanese whisky is often drunk mixed with hot water o-yu-wari (お湯割り), particularly in winter, or cold water mizu-wari (水割り), particularly in summer, as is done with shōchū. Whisky is also commonly drunk with food, particularly in mixed drinks, especially highballs. The prevalence of mixing whisky with soda or water is particularly attributed to the hot, muggy Japanese summer, hence the popularity of long drinks.