The Global Rise Of Japanese Whisky

Japanese whisky has exploded onto the global stage like a crane kicking Daniel LaRusso and it seems to have delivered a knock out blow to the Scotch whisky it once tried so hard to emulate. Names of Japanese whisky brands like Yamazaki, Hibiki, Hakushu and Yoichi have been flowing off whisky enthusiasts tongues' ever since Jim Murray awarded the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask the title of World's Best Whisky 2015. You'd be forgiven for wondering exactly where all that Japanese whisky has come as it was virtually unheard off on these shores up until a few short years ago? Well, you'll be surprised to find out that the Japanese have been making whisky since 1923! In actual fact they were making it before then but not in the 'Scottish' way that is so lauded by connoisseurs both past and present. It may also come as a bit of a shock to learn that Japan is the second largest producer of whisky in the world; even the US and Ireland play second fiddle to them such is their voracious appetite for malt. The only difference being that, until recently, Japanese whisky has mainly being confined solely for consumption in its country of origin and not exported like the Scottish, Irish and American variants. So the Japanese have Jim Murray to thank for their rise to global prominence? No, that's most certainly not the case although his award did catapult Japanese whisky more into the 'mainstream' consciousness as opposed to that of the diehard whisky aficionado. Japanese whisky has been winning awards since as far back as 2001 and the industry really started to take notice when, in 2008, two Japanese malts received top honours at the World Whisky Awards. The Yoichi 20 year old nabbed Best Single Malt and the Hibiki 30 year old took Best Blended Whisky. Ever since then, whisky from the Land Of The Rising Sun has gone from strength to strength and is finally getting the recognition it deserves from the whisky world. So how did the Japanese get into whisky and who are the main players? In a way the Scottish are a victim of their own success as they taught the Japanese all they know and it was the popularity of Scotch in Japan that made them want to emulate its production. At the end of World War 1 a promising student called Masetsaka Taketsuru came to Scotland at the behest of his master Shinjiro Torri, owner of the Yamazaki distillery and founder of Suntory. He was tasked to learn everything he possibly could concerning the distillation and production of Scotch; this was obviously no easy feat but Taketsuru was determined and intuitive. After three years of working in many Scottish distilleries he returned home and shared his knowledge with Shinjiro. Taketsuru was made head distiller but he eventually left and built the Yoichi distillery which later grew to become the Nikka brand. Suntory and Nikka were the two main players back then and they remain so to this day. Suntory produce the Hibiki, Yamazaki and Hakushu expressions that are very popular whilst Nikka are responsible for the equally excellent Yoichi, Taketsuru, Miyagikyo and Coffey malts. Japanese whisky was originally created with the view of directly emulating Scotch and many believed in the past that it was a pale imitation, a rip off if you will. Nothing could be further from the truth however, as with the passage of time Japanese whisky has evolved with a unique profile of its own; the fact that it's recently been karate kicking Scotch's backside into next week is proof that it's a serious contender in its own right. The Japanese do import malt and peated barley from Scotland but they also acquire grain from Australia and other countries. Despite the fact that there are many similarities between the way Japanese whisky and Scotch are made, such as the spirit being distilled twice in copper still for example, Japanese whisky has developed several characteristics that make it unique. The climate in Japan is more akin to Kentucky than the Highlands, meaning the maturation process occurs at a faster rate  and the wood has a greater influence over the final product. The Japanese also have unique access to Miruzana barrels, otherwise known as Japanese Oak, meaning that whisky matured in them will have a distinctive difference in flavour compared to whisky matured in more conventional casks. It would be inaccurate to purport that Japanese whisky has an overall cohesive style that spans all the ranges and brands; indeed, it's a testament to their ingenuity that the spectrum of flavours and styles are as broad as they are. There are relatively few distilleries in Japan and, unlike Scotland, the rival brands refuse to trade whisky with each other meaning that whiskies with multiple flavour profiles must be created in just one or two distilleries in order to create a blended whisky. The Japanese manage to create these differing styles 'in house' through a combination of clever use of different shaped stills, yeast compositions, mixes of barley and grains plus experimenting heavily with the cask maturation process. If you haven't taken the plunge yet and tried any Japanese malt then I say you're missing out on drams that are the equal of, if not better in many cases, than their Scottish counterparts. No matter what style of whisky you usually prefer there will be something from the Orient that will definitely tickle your taste buds. What are you waiting for, go and grab yourself some today!