A brief history of Japanese whisky
Japanese whisky has long been making its own mark on the world, with whisky-makers producing modern, delicately flavoured, unique whiskies. Despite its modern approach, reports of Japanese whisky date back to as early as the 1850s. Japanese whisky was officially established in 1923, when Suntory launched the first genuine malt whisky distillery in Osaka. The company was helped by employee Masataka Taketsuru, who was famously sent to Scotland to learn Scotch whisky-making in 1918, and he is now known as the father of Japanese whisky.
While there were once only a handful of whisky producers in Japan, new distilleries are now booming, and with them bring new flavours and distilling techniques.
How is Japanese whisky made?
Rather than leaning on tradition or focusing on a consistency like their Scottish counterparts, Japanese whisky-makers look for refinement and elegance in their whisky.
Distillers source water locally and play with peated and unpeated barley, different yeast strains, cut points and fermentation to craft individual whiskies with unique flavours.
Some distillers use an eclectic collection of still shapes and sizes to produce a creative array of whiskies. By using a range of woods in the barrels, like mizunara oak, a tree found only in Japan, or finishing in plum wine casks, distinct flavours are introduced to Japanese whiskies that can’t be recreated anywhere else in the world.
The modern Japanese whisky scene
Japan’s early debt to Scottish techniques can mask the innovative streak that runs through the country’s whisky industry, but the individuality of Japan’s whiskies is hard to ignore when sampling its blends.
These whisky blends are the drivers of the industry. Blends such as Hibiki and Nikka From the Barrel are rightly lauded for their quality and are equally remarkable for their experimental side.
The country’s love for whisky blends is fuelled by the mizuwari cocktail, a shot of whisky stirred with plenty of ice and sparkling water. This cocktail is the epitome of Japan’s modern whisky scene, served chilled in a highball glass.
12 of the best Japanese whiskies
Toki is a blended whisky from Suntory’s three distilleries: Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita. It is an incredibly approachable whisky with very light fragrant notes on the nose and herbal and citrus notes on the palate, which make it perfect for a refreshing highball.
Mars Kasei is blended whisky from the Shinshu distillery in Japan. It has fragrant notes of jasmine and honeysuckle, with notes of red plum and nectarine on the palate. A perfect gateway into Japanese whisky, or more generally into the wider whisky category.
An equal blend of malt and grain whisky aged in ex-bourbon, Xeres and virgin oak casks, which makes for an approachable dram taken neat. Tropical fruit notes develop into some lovely warming spice on the finish.
Japanese whisky producer Nikka was founded in 1934 and has become Japan’s second-largest distiller, producing a range of single malts and blended whiskies between its two distilleries, Yoichi and Miyagikyo. Nikka From the Barrel is a blended Japanese whisky packed with flavour, rich yet balanced, and elegant. It’s the ideal Japanese whisky for an old fashioned.
Relaunched in 2016, this is a smoky and rich whisky with an incredibly delicate finish of eucalyptus with a slightly saline character.
Aged primarily on ex-sherry casks, this is a blend of several different aged whiskies, with light floral characteristics and a slight savoury element to the finish, which makes this particularly moreish. Despite lacking an age statement, this whisky still delivers in spades.
Here, the mizunara-cask-aged liquid in the blend really takes on the Japanese oak’s characteristics and delivers a unique finish. This whisky will bring sandalwood and lots of spice on the nose, which really develops in the glass, if you can leave it in the glass long enough.
A deliciously nutty whisky from a newer vatting of its single malt. This is a great entry point into the Hanyu distillery, and one for those who say aren’t sure they like whisky, as it always changes their mind!
Yamazaki is Suntory’s flagship single malt whisky from Japan’s first and oldest malt distillery, and is the benchmark for quality Japanese whisky. This 12-year-old first came onto the market in 1984, and since then has acquired something of a cult following, and for good reason. A smooth single malt with notes of ripe peach, tropical fruit and a hint of citrus fruit. This well-balanced whisky appeals to novice and experienced whisky drinkers alike.
This is made exclusively from malted barley prepared with soft, pure spring water from the Kai Komagatake mountains in Japan. The whisky is aged in American and Spanish oak barrels, resulting in a long-lasting, slightly smoky whisky with a delicate, bitter note finish.
A rather remarkable spirit blended from whiskies made at Suntory’s three distilleries, matured in Japanese mizunara oak casks. This whisky is complex with a fruity, sweet aftertaste. One for special occasions.
Yamazaki’s 18-year-old is a smooth, deep whisky that’s full of flavour. Great complexity and a lovely balance of fruit, silky malt and a touch of smoke. A superlative whisky, perfect for aficionados who want to blow the budget.
All of these whiskies are available at Sakaya in Mayfair. Tucked away on the ground floor arcade of Nordic-Japanese food, drink and design village Pantechnicon, this intimate bottle shop specialises in rare sakes and Japanese whiskies. Try one of its tasting events or book a spot at its cosy, four-seater micro bar.