Japanese Whisky is one of the most brilliant and complex malts around. They rival Scotch in terms of quality and style and have many accolades to show for their skills.
It all started in 1923, when Masataka Taketsuru opened the Yamazaki Distillery. Taketsuru had grown up in his family’s sake brewery, which turned into a passion for distilling and the art of making Whisky.
He turned this passion into action by taking up Chemistry in Japan, before going to the University of Glasgow to further his studies. Here he was apprenticed to different distilleries, and the passion only grew.
In 1919 Taketsuru found himself at Longmorn Distillery and here he learnt a lot about how to distil the perfect malt. Returning to Japan in 1920, he took many lessons back with him, as well as a wife, Rita, whose family he had stayed with in Scotland.
Taketsuru turned his learning into success when he started Nikka Whisky and opened the first Japanese distillery at Yamazaki.
It is also said that he recreated the stills at Longmorn in his distillery, stills that continue to be used today.
Japanese Whisky Market Today
These days, there are a few more distilleries in Japan, with several new ones such as Gaia Flow and Asaka recently starting production or in the building phase. They sell all across the globe and are perhaps the biggest challenger to Scotch and its notoriety for quality, award wins and investability.
However, this has not always been the case. It is only within the last two decades that Japanese Whisky has been appreciated outside of Japan.
And a lot of this fame is down to how well it does at winning awards. In 2003 Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 Year Old was awarded the Gold Medal at the International Spirits Challenge, becoming the first Japanese Whisky to do so.
This transformed the perception of Japanese Whisky across the world and it was now recognised for its quality.
From there it took off, and its popularity has risen to such an extent that there is now a shortage of it worldwide. Some 20 years ago, Japanese Whisky was not all that popular, and as such, distilleries did not plan for a future where it would be flying off the shelves.
This has led to Suntory discontinuing expressions with age statements, such as the Hibiki 17 Year Old and Hakushu 12 Year Old in recent months, although availability has been reduced greatly over the last years as prices soared.
So clearly it’s very popular, but what makes Japanese malt so different and intriguing than other Whiskies?
The concepts of harmony and balance are huge parts of the Japanese Whisky experience. They are major themes in the creation of Japanese malt, and reflect Japanese culture.
There is a desire to capture a balance between the liquid and the flavour, so texture and maturation are important parts of Japanese Whisky.
It is therefore more common for Japanese brands to use multiple types of stills, from Coffey stills to pot stills. This creates a sweeter malt and develops more flavours from the grain and the malt, allowing blenders to explore many more styles than their Scottish counterparts.
Coffey stills are more efficient than pot stills as the feed of grain is constant rather than in batches. Most importantly, the grain provides a smoother taste, since the ABV is around 90% when running from the stills, resulting in that signature harmony and balance that many Japanese brands seek to create.
An excellent example of just how well the Japanese use their Coffey stills is Nikka’s Coffey Malt. This dram is incredibly smooth and packed with flavour, particularly vanilla and malted grains.
The texture really makes this Whisky. It has a mellow, soft mouth feel with an oily texture that goes really well with the bold, sweet flavours. The mouth feel complements the taste perfectly, working to really bring out the softer flavours.
Harmony in Flavour
The flavours themselves are well balanced, another big aspect of Japanese Whisky. The Nikka Yoichi Salty and Peated is an excellent example of how harmony and balance can really create a well-rounded dram.
Sold from the Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido, this malt is part of a distillery exclusive range. Both the salted and peated aspects of this dram are equally represented and work together to bring a deeper flavour. They are intertwined, rather than vying for attention from the other.
Capturing harmony and balance within their malt is a reflection of the wider Japanese belief in achieving equilibrium between humanity and nature.
This is perhaps best showcased in the Hibiki Japanese Harmony expression. This blend is now at the centre of Suntory’s Hibiki range, which is a selection of blended malts.
With blends, the idea of harmony is even more important to capture, as the malts used must work in tandem to create a blend that works.
The Hibiki Japanese Harmony expression is the idea of harmony in liquid form. Made from malts that have been aged in a range of casks including American oak, Mizunara (Japanese oak) and Sherry casks, this dram is the marriage of different flavours and textures. It is done exceptionally well, with all the different notes complement each other, with no single note or component fighting for attention.
The Hakushu 12 Year Old is also a wonderful example of Japanese malt and the quest for harmony. It has won multiple awards and brings together some of the best flavour profiles in Japanese distilling.
It is earthy and elegant, with lots of sweet notes of caramel, combined with rich grassy flavours. There are also orchard fruits and oak notes, with a wonderful smoky flavour in the background.
The flavours bounce of each other without being in combat. They work together to really bring a well-rounded feel to the malt.
The Japanese Whisky industry may have started with a lot of influence from Scotch producers, but a lot has changed since then. Today they have processes that are very different from producers across the sea.
Typically in Japanese distilleries, they only produce clear wort. This contains fewer lipids than found in cloudy wort. Lipids produce a nuttier flavour and therefore, Japanese Whisky often does not have this type of flavour profile.
And while European and American oak casks are the most common used in Scotch and other Whisky producing countries, Japanese distilleries are more likely to finish their malt in Japanese oak casks.
Japanese oak is more porous and softer than other types of oak and is therefore not used as much, since it is more prone to leaking.
In Japan, it is used for the last part of maturation and gives the malt a delicate, floral profile. This creates a balanced flavour than many Scotches tend to have. The flavour profile is softer, with more fragrant, aromatic notes.
It is also not unheard of for distilleries to have their own strain of yeast. Suntory has a personalised yeast called suntoryeus lactobacillus.
Yeast is one of the key ingredients in Whisky production and will have an effect on flavour. A lot of emphasis is placed on the type of yeast used in Japanese Whisky production.
They believe that the quality of the yeast will result in a better fermentation and all of the flavours that come from this part of the process.
As such, distillers are very particular about their yeast and will be very specific about which types they use. They also use more than one type of yeast, which is not typically done in places like Scotland. This aims to achieve the best fermentation, allowing all of the flavour of the grain to be released.
The Japanese Art of Blending
Distilleries in Japan typically carry out the blending process in-house, rather than trading casks with other places.
This means blended ranges have more diversity and variation than many distilleries in Scotland or Ireland would have.
It brings back control into the hands of the Master Distillers, and allows for more experimentation with still types, fermentation and maturation.
The concept of blending ties in with the desire to discover harmony within the malt.
The Hibiki range is the perfect example of this, especially the 17 Year Old expression. It has been matured in Mizunara casks for 17 years and is the epitome of smoothness.
The flavours melt into one another, with deep floral notes and lots of earthy tones. It is a great example of the floral flavours that the mizunara casks impart.
Where do we go from here?
So now that you’re all clued up on Japanese Whisky, what’s next?
Well the obvious answer is to get out there and try it. with the exception of the Hakushu 12 Year Old and the Hibiki 17 Year Old, which are now discontinued, these malts are within your reach.
Trying them will make the concepts and processes we’ve discussed really come to life.
If you’re wondering just what “harmony” tastes like in a dram, then go out and try it for yourself!