Because most of my friends know my love for my copper whiskey still, my passion for distilling, and whiskey in general, I do get a lot of awesome gifts. When a friend of mine from Japan visited me last week, he brought something quite fancy that I’d only tasted once before, at a whiskey fair: a bottle of Japanese malt. Very few people, including myself, know much about Japanese whisky but although it’s not as well-known as Scotch or Bourbon, it is a fine product with a long history.
The first and most famous Japanese whisky distillery is Yamazaki, owned by Suntory and founded in 1923. It is located outside Japan’s old capital, Kyoto, a great location for making whiskey, with pure waters and high humidity. Today, Suntory Yamazaki is the most popular single malt whisky in Japan, but it also gets exported to over 25 countries worldwide.
Whiskey reached Japan through a case of Scotch, sometime late 1800s. As these things go, they loved it so they started making their own. This is also what made them follow the Scottish recipe and why they spell it as the British: “whisky”. Suntory’s first master distiller actually studied and perfected his skills in Scotland and chose the distillery location in similar landscape and climate. Some years after opening the distillery, they also worked at developing a local taste for whisky and opened Suntory whisky bars throughout the country, making the drink popular with the Japanese people.
Although it does taste very similar to Scotch, there are also unique elements to the Japanese version. Obviously, local climate and water have an impact but what is also relevant is their use of numerous variations, priding themselves on the diversity of ingredients, malting and fermentation processes, various yeasts and peat levels. They use different shapes and sizes copper stills (though they claim their most common are their “giant copper pot stills”) and age their distillate in a wide variety of barrels, from new or used American oak, to sherry and wine casks. Essential to its distinctive flavor is the use of aromatic Japanese oak, which adds a strong incense note. So, although they produce high quality single malts, their blends are also subtle, complex... and quite expensive. The Hibiki blend is said to contain more than 20 different whiskies.
The distillery has come a long way since its launch and Suntory had not only expanded its portfolio but it also created a market for competing newcomers. Their most known products are the Hibiki - a 12 year-old blend, the Hakushu – a 12 year-old malt, and Yamazaki – a 12 or 18 year-old single malt. The latter is the most expensive, at about $140 a bottle. Although I’ve only seen them at whiskey fairs and tasting events, I read that you can now find all of them in the States too.
Posted by Jason Stone on