The subtile nuances of Japanese whisky
“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in Lost in Translation
Japan is synonymous with many things: electronics, cars, origami, sake, sushi, intricate art, Sumo wrestling and architecture. Now, if you’re willing to wait out a significant chunk of your day for it, cheesecake.
Even after seeing Lost in Translation in 2003 (a movie featuring Bill Murray as Bob Harris, an aging movie star visiting Japan to promote Suntory whisky), the connection between Japan and whisky still really didn’t register with me. To this day I have yet to buy a bottle of the stuff … mostly because it’s hard to find and also, when you do find it, it’s not exactly cheap. However, my experience with things Japanese is that you do get what you pay for (and here I’m primarily talking about the items I have tried: sake, sushi, Japanese knives, etc.). The Japanese whiskies I’ve sampled have invariably been top-notch. And, much to the chagrin of the Scots, they’ve actually been stealing accolades from the world’s top drams.
So now I, along with whisky aficionados around the world, have added Japan to my list of go-to whisky destinations. The reality is, we have little choice. In his 2015 World Whisky Bible, industry expert Jim Murray crowned the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, from Suntory, as World Whisky of the Year. As it turns out, nary a Scottish whisky made the top five. Japanese whiskies have continued to bag metal at competitions across the globe (in fact, they were garnering “best of” accolades as far back as 2008). If there’s any consolation to the Scottish distillers now adding tears rather than water to their tipples, it’s that, had it not been for the Scots, the Japanese would likely not be where they are today in terms of distilling.
Japan has been distilling whisky as far back as the 1700s. However, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that Shinjiro Torii, along with Masetsaka Taketsuru, established the Yamazaki Distillery, which would eventually become Suntory, near Kyoto. In 1918, Taketsuru journeyed to Scotland to learn what he could about whisky making. He enrolled in the University of Glasgow, becoming the first Japanese person to study the art of whisky making, and apprenticed at a number of famous Scottish malt distilleries, before bringing his knowledge (and a wife) back to Japan.
In 1934, Taketsuru branched out on his own, establishing the Nikka Whisky company, with a distillery located in Yoichi, on the island of Hokkaido, in the northern part of the country. This area seemed, to him, to most closely replicate the Scottish landscape. Japan’s “whisky country” however, is less differentiated than those of Scotland.
“I am not sure if one can say Japan has distinctive whisky regions since there are fewer than a dozen established distilleries,” reports Shotaro Ozawa, whose company, Ozawa Canada Inc., represents the Nikka Distillery products. “Recently, though, both sake breweries, and craft beer producers, because of the huge popularity of Japanese whisky at home and abroad, are founding new distilleries. The two main whisky distillers, Suntory and Nikka, are the pioneers and are located in Western Japan (Kansai region). Suntory’s Yamazaki (Osaka prefect) is located near Kyoto. Japan’s first distillery is in Yoichi, Hokkaido (Japan’s northern Island) [which is] home to Nikka’s crown jewel — with a climate similar to Scotland’s and an ideal source of perfect water for whisky and an abundance of peat from the riverbeds.”
Gardner Dunn, Senior Brand Ambassador, Suntory Japanese Whisky, notes that rather than defined regions, the elevation of the Suntory distilleries and the subsequent differences in temperature have more of an impact on the final products.
“Yamazaki, outside Kyoto, is at around 162 feet,” he points out. Hakushu is one of the highest distilleries, at roughly 2,500 feet in Yamanashi prefecture. The difference in temperature between the two dictates the use of certain sized barrels to optimize maturation.”
The proximity to the sea — just a kilometre from the Sea of Japan — and the influence of the salty ocean air, appreciably contributes to maritime tang of Nikka’s Yoichi line of whiskies. I recently sampled a dram or two, in France, of all places, of Nikka Yoichi (No Age Statement) Single Malt, which seemed to combine the warm, toffee, malt and honeyed tones of a Highland malt, with the smoky, lemony and in this case, rather intensely briny notes more typical of something like Bunnahabhain’s Ceobanach — a peated offering from a distillery that typically doesn’t use peat.
While the peat used in Nikka’s whiskies is sourced locally, according to Ozawa, Dunn confirms that Suntory imports barley from Scotland that has been peated to a specified level. Both Nikka and Suntory strive to use the purest water available.
“The main source of water for Nikka’s Yoichi Distillery is from the mountain springs and surrounding rivers, in particular the main Yoichi River,” Ozawa points out, adding that water for the Miyagikyo Distillery is sourced from underground springs and surrounding rivers. Dunn reveals that both of Suntory’s distilleries use unique water sources. “Our beautiful, soft water is optimum for producing [our] style of whisky.”
In terms of barrels, Suntory and Nikka have somewhat different approaches. Nikka’s barrels are imported from Bulgaria. Suntory uses a range, from ex-bourbon, to American white oak and Spanish oloroso sherry casks. The company’s in-house cooperage also fashions barrels from Japanese Mizunara oak. “It is a very tight-grained oak that only grows in the North Island,” Dunn explains, noting that it matures very slowly and imparts notes of oriental incense, spice and coconut to the finished whisky.
The copper pot stills used by Nikka Whisky were crafted in Japan and are of varying sizes. Suntory operates two sets of eight distinctly-shaped stills. As any distiller will attest, the size and shape of a still significantly impacts the spirit it produces, and the varying sizes employed by Nikka and Suntory no doubt play a role in crafting the unique character of the individual whiskies.
While Japan’s whiskies are currently experiencing a surge in popularity, the industry itself, like those in other countries, has weathered ups and downs. The whisky boom of the 1970s and early ’80s gave way to a slump in domestic whisky sales in the late ’80s, resulting in the closure of several distilleries. However, the international acclaim Japanese whiskies have since garnered has led to a resurgence in interest. A lot of interest, in fact.
“Convenience stores across Japan started to sell single malt whiskies from both Nikka and Suntory in smaller, 375 ml formats with huge success,” Ozawa reveals. Unfortunately, success can come at a price. “This resulted in very little single or pure malt whisky reserves or stock remaining,” Ozawa confirms, adding “you will only see No Age Declared premium whisky from Japan for the near foreseeable future from both Nikka and Suntory.” In short, don’t expect to see any 10, 12, or 17-year-old Japanese whiskies anytime soon. Nikka has completely discontinued its age-statement lineup, and Suntory is expected to follow suit.
Ironically (and in keeping with the Scottish connection), a similar fate has bestowed itself among some Scottish distillers as of late. The reason in the case of both Scottish and Japanese whiskies is the same: the aforementioned whisky slump in the ’80s resulted in a decline in production, with fewer and fewer barrels being laid down to age. When the situation rebounded, this stock quickly became exhausted. Now both countries are essentially playing “catch up” in terms of replenishing their mature whiskies.
Though they may currently be a little scarce in the Canadian market, Japanese whiskies are worth pursuing. They offer the best qualities of their Scottish counterparts — including complexity, harmony, and great depth of character — along with a certain exotic quality that distinguishes them as unique, different, and well worthy of the accolades they have garnered both in the Far East and around the globe.
Nikka Whisky Yoichi Single Malt NAS
Smoky and distinctly briny aromas with underlying traces of anise, malt, heather, orange peel and nougat. Salty, peaty and crisp in the mouth with an incredibly long peaty/malty finish.
Nikka Whisky Yoichi 12 Years Single Malt
A complex aromatic blend showing some nutty, vanilla components wrapped around the distillery’s characteristic smoky/coastal notes. Balanced and smooth in the mouth with flavours of honeyed malt, peat smoke and sultanan.
Suntory Whisky Hibiki 12 Years Old
A blend of single malts from both Suntory distilleries blended with grain whisky from the Chita region, partially aged in plum liqueur barrels. Far less peaty than the Yoichi samples (though the peat is still there), the Hibiki is fruitier — marmalade, baked apple — while also showing toasted almond, buckwheat honey, caramel and a bare hint of iodine. Smooth and supple, with linger fruit on the finish.