& other International Whiskies
Over the last 30 years Japanese whiskies reputation has progressed so much it is now considered on par with the finest whiskies in the world. Which is especially impressive considering they've been at it commerically for less than a century.
Japanese whisky's style and industry is modeled after scotch. Pot distilled single malts - sometimes peated, column distilled grain whisky and blends of the two. In general, Japanese single malts and their whisky in general, tends to be on the more delicate end, closer to inland scotch (not always of course). This does not mean lighter or weaker mind you, just subtler, but still wholly complex.
While similar to scotch, Japanese whiskey it has the fingerprints of Japanese culture all over it. It is driven by innovation, experimentation and variation. They are constantly tweaking and improving their process. Rather than focussing on a singular style, or a centuries old tradition like many Scotch distilleries, Japanese distilleries make multiple styles of whisky using a variety of grains, yeast strains and stills. They then age their whisky in multiple types of barrels: recycled bourbon, sherry, Japanese plum wine and the increasingly prized as Japanese oak “mizunara,” which adds an incense-like aroma. Like scotch, the minimum age is three years, but often goes far beyond that.
Japanese single malts, which are what the category is best known for internationally, are a blend all these different whiskies. They are still single malts, since they are the the product of a single distillery, but this is a clear departure from scotch single malts, which are directed at one type of whisky.
In addition to being an exciting and every evolving whiskey-scape, the Japanese approach to whisky results in multiple expressions as well as rare and limited edition bottlings showcasing special blends, barrels and age statements.
Cateogries (in keeping with scotch):
Single malts - 100% malted barley all from one disillery that is more intense and fuller flavored.
Pure malts (called blended malts in Scotch) - A blend of single malts.
Grain whisky - Whiskey made from non-barley grains, usually corn, typically distillled in column stills.
Blended whisky - A blend of single malt and grain whiskies that is lighter and more apprachable.
Mixing with Japanese Whisky
Using Japanese whiskey in cocktails is similar to using scotch. It can be difficult (and expensive) because those strong flavors can either dominate or clash. But Japanese whisky is it's own animal. The single malts, while rich, are not as intense as most single malt scotches, so they can be more adaptable. Like scotch, with the right cocktail, Japanese whisky can be a dream to mix with. Now I'm craving a Japanese Rob Roy.
Distilleries & Brands
The Nikka and Suntory companies are the diverging backbones of the Japanese whisky industry. Each has two main disitlleries that, as mentioned above, makes several styles of whisky. Some is for single malts, some for blends and other lines. Whisky stock is shared within each company but not outside of it, as it is with scotch and Irish whisky. You can explore the breadth and variety of each more on their websites.
With popularity rising, the Japanese whisky industry is evolving New producers throwing their hat into the ring as well, notably the Chichibu disillery. Whisky from Karuizawa Distillery which closed in 2001, has also become highly coveted. Expect this category to continue to expand in the coming years.
Distilleries - Each of Nikka's distilleries used to release multiple age statements of their single malts but due to demand now they only make one, with no age statement.
Yoichi (yo-EE-chee) - The make a variety of peated style whiskies, which is reflected in the smoky but balanced "Yoichi Single Malt."
Miyagikyo (MEE-ya-geek-YO) - Their whisky is more on the delicate, floral and fruity side. "Miyagiko Single Malt" is all of those things and mostly aged in ex-sherry casks.
Taketsuru (Tack-ett-TSU-rue) Pure Malt - Their flaship pure malt. The single malts mostly come from Miyagikyo, the rest from Yoichi. Smooth, balanced with fruit and sherry. Affordable enough to justify mixing with, as Japanese whisky goes anyway.
Nikka Coffee Grain Whisky - A grain whisky! Coffee is a reference to the "Coffey" Still used, aka column still. This is closer to bourbon than scotch, but really it's own thing. They also have a Coffee Malt Whisky, which is the rare case of malted barley being distilled in a column still.
Nikka Blends - Nikka All Malt: really more of a pure malt since it's a blend of single malts and the Coffee Malt whisky made in a column still. Hence, all malt. Nikka From the Barrel, The Nikka 12 Year and Super Nikka: a peatier blend.
Yamazaki (YA-mah-ZOCK-ee) - Japan's #1 single malt and one of the more sought after single malts in the world, Japanese or otherwsise. A perfect balance of fruit and spice with some mizurana whisky in there. The newly released Distiller's Reserve with no age statement, is the baseline. There are also bottlings of 12 (the first Japanese whisky to really break out), 18 and 25 years.
Hakushu (ha-COO-shoe) - Known more for peated whiskies ranging from lightly to heavy smoke flavors. The entry point is the Distiller's Reserve, there are also ages of 12, 18 and 25 years.
Hibiki (hih-BEE-kee) - A blend of Yamazaki and Hakushu malts, with some grain whiksy. The baseline is the Hibiki Harmony, delicate, balanced and very tasty. Bottlings of 12, 17, 21 and 30 years are also out there.
Chichibu (CHEE-CHEE-boo) - A new distillery started by Ichiro Akuto that's been causing some waves. Here are two of their bottlings:
Ichirio's Malt Chichibu - Peated
Ichiro's Malt Chichibu - On The Way
To keep up with what's going on in the Japanese Whisky world, including great bottle reviews, check out nonjatta.com. The most comprehesive English website on Japanese whisky.
The Japanese Whisky Story
The Japanese have been making spirits for centuries using the traditional Asian method of fermenting koji (cakes of rice) as a base for what is known as shochu today. But when the European method of malting grains arrived in the 19th century, Japan was on it's way to making whisky.
Japanese whisky got going commercially in the early 1920s when Shinjiro Torii started the Yamazaki distillery and hired the young Masataka Taketsuru to run it. Taketsuru had spent five years in Scotland learning art of whisky-making. After 10 years though, Taketsuru left Yamazki after continued disagreements with Torii. These essentially boiled down to art vs commerce. Taketsuru went of to open his own disitllery, Yoichi, in Northern Japan. He chose that location the climate was more similar to Scotland.
Over the 20th century these two distilleries, would go on to become Suntory (Yamazkai) and Nikka (Yoichi), the cornerstones of the Japanese whisky industry - as well as bitter business rivals. But until the end of the 20th century Japanese whisky was still almost an enitrely domestic product. That changed in the early 21st century when Nikka and Suntory began picking up awards at international whisky competitions. Nikka's 10-year Yoichi single malt won "Best of the Best" at Whisky Magazine's awards in 2001 and Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 won a gold medal at the 2003 International Spirits Challenge.
Since then the category hasn't looked back. Japanese whisky has been embraced by the whisky community. Their rapid ascendence to being considered a worthy comparison to scotch whisky - unthinkable 15 years ago - is an increidble story that's surley an inspiration to the burgeoning whisky industries in countries throughout the world.
Other International Whiskies
Outside of the major whiskey producing countries, whiskey is made literally all over the world. Not just as domestic endeavors. Many of them have received international acclaim and are rapidly changing conversation about where good whisky comes from. The answer now? Anywhere.
Statistically, India is the third largest whiskey consuming country in the world (after China and Russia). Much of what they make domestically is blended with molasses based neutral spirit and would be considered rum to the rest of the world, but there are notable exceptions. The Amrut and Paul John distilleries both produce globally recognized single malts that regularly pick up awards. But both are barely sold in India, concentrating their efforts abroad. One element of Indian whisky is their tropical climate allows them to aged for shorter periods, the estimation is one year in India is three in Scotland. This give India it's own spin on whisky.
Australia has a booming whiksy industry with over 20 distilleries in operation which have all opened since a law change in 1992. The largest concentration on them is on the tiny island of Tazmania south of the mainland. Two leaders of the renaissance are The Lark distillery, establshied in 1992 and Sullivan’s Cove distillery, which followed soon after in 1994. Both have produced sinlge malts that have been held in the same esteem as the best in the world.
It’s not the just about the British Isles anymore, all of Europe is beginning to get into the whisky game. One notably entry is Sweden, which is the home of the Mackmyra distillery, opened in 1999. They make a range of single malts and give them a distinctly Scandinavian tilt. Some have juniper added alongside with peat to flavor the smoke and the finish many of their whiskies in Swedish oak. Another player is the Spirit of Hven distillery which makes a variety of spirits, including single malts, on the island of Hven between Sweden and Denmark. Some of the barley they use is grown there as well.