Masataka Taketsuru is a Japanese legend. Widely credited as the father of Japanese whisky, he studied Scottish whisky production methods and was instrumental in setting up Japan’s first commercial distillery, Yamazaki, almost a century ago. For decades, Japanese whisky was largely a domestic phenomenon. That changed dramatically this millennium.
Blame it on whisky aficionados seeking new experiences and also on the slew of International awards that Japanese malts have garnered over the last decade. Scottish distilling methods are at the core of Japanese tradition, the country also imports four-fifths of all Scotch whisky under 3 years old for their blends.
Because of its broad definition — Japanese whisky is simply whisky from Japan — the whisky doesn’t have just one single flavour. However, the Japanese obsession with harmony and perfection plays out in their whisky. They are truly the masters in blending, it’s why Japanese whiskies have become the new favourite at upscale airport duty free stores. The Japanese tradition of pairing whisky with their meals also makes Japanese whiskies the perfect food accompaniment with more mellow flavour profiles.
First among equals
The Hakushu 25-year-old: If nothing but the best Japanese malt will suffice for your collection, then look no further. In 2018, it was picked as the World’s best single malt at the World Whiskies awards. It’s won universal acclaim from critics and whisky buffs alike. The Hakushu distillery is located in the foothills of Mount Kaikomagatake in the Yamanashi Prefecture, one of Japan’s most scenic pockets. If peated, Scottish single malt whiskies are your style, then this incredible 25-year-old won’t disappoint.
Four Japanese whiskies to look out for at duty free shops around the world
The Yamazaki 12-year-old: Yamazaki occupies a special place in Japan’s whisky traditions. The country’s first distillery, Suntory set this up in 1899. It was also the first single malt whisky that made Japanese whisky a global phenomenon. It’s well balanced, fruity sweetness appeals to newbies and seasoned whisky drinkers alike.
Suntory Hibiki 21-year- old edition: The Hibiki brand debuted in 1989 to commemorate Suntory’s 90th anniversary. Ever since, it’s become the epitome of Japanese whisky. This 21-YO won the best blended whisky in the world at the World Whisky awards last year. Elegant, sweet, complex, smooth and subtle are some of the adjectives that judges used to describe this fine blend.
Nikka Coffey Grain whisky: Packed in an exquisite box, this is a great gift idea to introduce the recipient to the world of Japanese whisky. The Coffey Still is the world’s first patented continuous style still that dates back to 1930. It retains the flavours of ingredients and creates a distinctive texture. Complex, sweet and mellow flavours come to the fore in this grain whisky.
The Chita: One of Japan’s newer whisky brands. This is a great option for your home bar. This delicate grain whisky bottled at the distillery of the same name is best enjoyed straight. The playful, sweet notes make it instantly likeable, the perfect start for first-timers looking to explore Japanese whisky.
Japanese whisky speak
The closest Japanese expression for craft whisky, it refers to a whisky from a local distillery that is only available locally and almost unknown outside that area. These are often from producers who focus on sake or shochu and brew whisky as an add-on. Sunshine whisky from Wakatsuru brewery sold in sake bottles is one of the better known ji-whiskies.
The equivalent of blended malts in Scotland. Made from a blend of 100 per cent malted barley, pot still distilled whiskies.
If you’re at a bar or restaurant in Japan and ask for a Mizuwari, you’ll be served a whisky and water.
The Japanese equivalent of a highball — whisky with soda. Highballs are a thing in Japan and many stores sell canned haiborus.