Whiskey. A beverage that is as synonymous with The Highlands of Scotland as sparkling white wine is to the Champagne region of France. This could all be set to change however, for better or for worse. Japan is looking to steal away Scotland’s pride and joy with their innovative drinks such as the Suntory and Nikka Whisky.
Whisky is not new to Japan, although it did take a very long time for Japanese whiskies to reach the international market. The first distillery was opened in 1923 by a visionary entrepreneur that went by the name of Shinjiro Torii. He converted a failing wine merchants into the home of Japan’s first whisky company – Suntory.
Shinjiro did not act alone, however, he had the business brains but not the knowledge of how to brew a competitive whisky. For this, he had his right hand man Taketsuru, a man dubbed as ‘The Father of Japanese Whisky’. Taketsuru came from a long ancestry of Sake (a Japanese lacquer) brewers. He wanted to learn something new, however, so he journeyed far away from his homeland to the University of Glasgow in Scotland to study chemistry. This is no small feat for a Japanese man today, but more than one hundred years ago it was considered an almost mindless adventure by most. What made the trip even more difficult was the countries strict anti-migration laws, put in place so that native Japanese people stayed in Japan.
Taketsuru completed a number of distillery apprenticeships and learnt first hand the delicate art of blending a fine whisky. He returned to Japan in 1920 with a Scottish wife and dreams of malt and barley. He was recruited by the businessman Shinjiro. The two would go on to create Japan’s first whisky.
Suntory is Japans first whisky company, and the Yamazaki their first distillery. The Yamazaki Distillery, set up by the two founders of Japanese whisky, is still in operation today. Suntory matures their whisky in casks of different sizes depending on how long it is until they will be sold, something fairly unique to Japan. Mizunara Oak is a tree native to Japan, meaning that only Japanese whiskies can utilise the timber into casks which provide subtle smoky flavours and hints of tropical fruit.
The Suntory company went on to set up another distillery in the ancient forest lining a mountainside, they called it Hakushu. Single malts from this distillery tend to have hint of green apple, jasmine and vanilla, which are all ingredients found nearby for extra freshness. The highly sought after Hibiki Line of blended whisky is made from the mix of whisky from the two distilleries.
Nikka whisky is the invention of Taketsuru. He left the Suntory company after his ten year contract ended and was itching to follow his own visions. The Father of Japanese Whisky set up a distillery on the small island of Hokkaido. At the time, it was a rather primitive place with only a few villages, mines and a plethora of wildlife including, bears, boars and wild dogs. Furthermore, the island was inconveniently placed to export whisky to the mainland of Japan and the rest of the world.
Taketsuru persevered, however, he had the chance to set up on the mainland but decided against the idea as he had worries that Shinjiro would send men after him to sabotage the distillery to keep competition at a low. Taketsuru also felt a connection between the Japanese island of Hokkaido and the Scottish isle of Skye, home of a Scotch distillery. Both were homes to vicious weather and freak thunderstorms, only the hardiest of people could survive either island. Taketsuru had learnt on his exploration of Scotland that it takes a hard people to create a hard drink. Nikka whisky also set up a second distillery mirroring Suntory, the market share between the two is relatively even and it has been told that the rivalry has been good for both businesses.
A combination of coincidences lead to Japanese whisky being catapulted into the international limelight. Firstly, the new drink from a foreign land was massively successful among the Japanese natives, who had only known a single alcoholic drink for hundreds of years, Sake. The massive success lead to a huge increase in production until whisky was being shipped all across Japan, which of course meant huge profits. With money in the bank and a whole world to sell to it was time for the Japanese renegades to try and steal the Scot’s whisky crown!
In 2010, Yamazaki’s quarter century old whisky won the highest award possible ‘supreme champion spirit’ at the annual international spirits challenge. Suntory were also named the ‘distiller of the year’. In the same year, Suntory was the first Japanese company to be crowned with the acclaimed ‘whisky distiller of the year’ award as well! These achievements propelled the Japanese into the forefront of the international whisky industry.
For the next four years in a row, Suntory was named ‘distiller of the year’. The continued success of the Japanese was a wake up call to Scotland, as well as other distilleries across the globe. Blends such as Nikka whisky from the Barrel are highly regarded for their quality, but it is the experimental side of Japanese blends that appeals to modern drinkers. From differing peat levels, creative ageing techniques, to the use of Japanese Mizunara oak barrels.
Will Japanese whisky properly penetrate the European market? Only time will tell, for now they are very highly demanded and in very little stock so they remain a premium product, not for domestic drinkers. At the moment, the
market share for whisky is minuscule compared to Scotch. The Likes of Suntory and Nikka whisky are looking to change this, however.
Have you ever tried an authentic Japanese dram? What did you think and what are your thoughts on the rise of brands such Nikka Whisky? Let us know in the comments below, we love to read your responses and seeing what you have to say!