Japanese whisky is spelled Scotch whisky style – without the “e” that adorns Irish and American whiskies. This is fitting, since Japanese whisky is modeled after various categories of Scotch whisky, starting from Single Malt. We will go into the history, but the general consensus among aficionados is that Japanese whisky has finally “arrived” on the world stage, firmly establishing its overall provenance and brand when whisky critic Jim Murray declared Yamakazi’s 2013 Single Malt Sherry Cask to be “the best whisky in the world.”
History of Whisky Production in Japan
The Japanese have a long history with fermenting and distilling alcoholic spirits. A wide variety of fermented wines and liquors had been in produced there over thousands of years, including but not limited to nihonshu (what Westerners call sake, a misnomer since “sake” literally means “alcohol” in Japanese), shochu, and a wide variety of beers, wines and fruit liqueurs.
The production of whisky in Japan began in the 1870’s. The first attempts at creating an alcoholic beverage that was suitable for Japanese palates failed, but the attempts kept going on for over 50 years, till …
Inspiration Arrived from Scotland
Over in the British Isles, Scotch (especially of the Single Malt variety) slowly become the standard bearer for whisky in the decades following World War I – after a protracted race for dominance with its cousin next door, Irish whiskey. Interestingly enough, or perhaps inevitably, this is exactly when the foundations for modern day Japanese “Scotch” whisky were laid.
In 1918, Masataka Taketsuru, a young chemist sponsored by Settsu Shuzo, a Japanese distillery, went to Scotland to learn the art of whisky making. He enrolled in Chemistry at the University of Glasgow and then proceeded to apprentice at three Scottish distilleries. By the time he returned in 1920, he had mastered the craft to an extent unknown to any local distillers at the time – his knowledge was captured in two thick notebooks filled with drawings and details that became a Bible for Japan’s fledgling whisky industry. Plus, he brought over with him his Scottish wife, Jessie Roberta (Rita), who decided to immigrate in order to support her husband’s lifelong passion.
Upon return, Masataka and Rita found that their sponsor company, Settsu Shuzo, was not able to proceed with manufacturing genuine whisky in Japan due to certain concessions made after World War I. This left the whisky master high and dry, so to speak, for a little bit. But a solution soon emerged.
A different company, the Osaka based Kotobukiya Limited (Suntory), had made a name for itself in the local market. Led by the ambitious Shinjiro Torii, Suntory was looking for a master distiller of whisky. The two godfathers of Japanese Scotch whisky, Masataka and Torii, thus joined up to open the fabled Yamazaki Distillery in 1923, proceeding to distill and distribute the first genuine Japanese Scotch whisky.
Creative Differences Didn’t Slow Down Development
The two men differed on the ideal location for a whisky distillery. Shinjo Torii preferred the current location of the Yamazaki, with its own microsystem and the confluence of three rivers which afforded one of the purest water sources in Japan. Yamakazi continues to be one of the doyens among Japanese distilleries.
After his 10-year contract with Kotubukiya ended, Masataka became independent – opening up his first distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, his preferred location. Yoichi was similar to Scotland, enjoying a cool climate with appropriate humidity and crisp air. In 1936, the first pot still installed by Masataka began production. Four years later, in 1940, the first batch of whisky was launched. The whisky was named Nikka, taking its name from “Nippon Kaju” (Great Japanese Juice Company).
What is Japanese Whisky Like? When Did it Become Popular?
The story above illustrates why many critics have said that good Japanese whisky tastes “eerily like Scotch”, especially Single Malt Scotch from Speyside and Lowland. Japanese whisky continued to evolve after Masataka and Shinjo Torii launched production, though deprivations after Japan’s devastating defeat in World War II did slow things down.
While there are many similarities, Japanese whisky is hardly a clone of Scotch, for a number of reasons that are discussed below. Though it has taken a long time, the consensus is that the distinctive brand of Japanese whisky has now made a niche for itself, accounting for 5% of worldwide production currently.
The taste and quality of Japanese whisky has been acknowledged globally since the early 2000’s, and now it holds its own against the finest Single Malt Scotches from the old country. Between 2014 to 2018, the sales of Japanese whisky in the US increased nearly seven-fold, from $6 million to $40 million, as reported by the Distilled Spirits Council. What has fed into the explosive growth is certainly quality, but also high price – which in turn has been nurtured by marketers who tout the superior craftsmen from the islands of Japan. Let’s see if this reputation is well deserved.
Differences Between Japanese Whisky and Scotch Whisky
We have already mentioned that good Japanese whisky is similar to good Single Malt Scotch whisky. There are, however, significant differences in finish, flavor, overtones and mouthfeel created by local conditions and production tweaks by Japanese distillers. Before we get there, let’s look some other differences between Japan and Scotland.
The Industry is Organized Very Differently in Japan
One of the major differences between Japan and Scotland is the way its distilleries operate, and the way the industries in the two countries are organized. At present, there are eight major active distilleries in Japan, with the two pioneers, Suntory and Nikka, still holding pride of place in terms of size and prestige. Each distillation company has production operations in multiple locations which they have chosen for different reasons – including local climate, water etc.
Compare the above scenario to 120+ distilleries operating in Scotland, each of which often specializes narrowly – particularly in the case of Single Malts, where a distillery may produce just one single Scotch. Distilleries also constantly work with each other to procure other grain alcohol and blended whiskeys. This enables a Diageo to procure from dozens of distilleries per batch to create their Johnnie Walker blend.
Besides there being a far smaller number of distilleries in Japan, the companies do not collaborate – which means that all innovation happens within the company and its affiliated distilleries, each Japanese distillery produces dozens of styles of whiskies under a single roof.
Each Major Japanese Whisky Manufacturer has a Huge Number of Brands and Vintages
A distillery can produce dozens and dozens of whiskies. Yamazaki, for example, can easily produce up to 70 styles of malt whisky in house, employing seven types of stills, two types of fermentation and five types of casks.
At another Suntory distillery, Hakushu, 40 styles of whisky are produced. On top of these, certain batches are made with peated malts which are distilled separately, combining their various equipment and arrangements. Suntory also makes their own grain whisky, in several different styles – they have even installed a column still (bourbon style) at Hakushu. The whiskies range from high, medium to low prices, export vs. domestic consumption quality, and in particular, use different blends of grain alcohol – both imported and home-made.
While this system produces a mix of results that you would not find in the much better-defined world of Scottish whisky, it creates a bit of a free for all in terms of what gets labelled as Japanese whisky in the world market – especially because …
Legal Requirements Governing Japanese Scotch Are Much Laxer than Scotch
Unlike Scotch, Bourbon or several such name recognized whiskies, Japanese whisky has very few defined regulations – except that a cereal grain, and not rice, must be used for the production of whisky and that the whisky must be aged in barrels. Contrast this to Scotch or Bourbon manufacturing guidelines, which specify minimum amounts of grain (or forbid certain grains being used); require whisky to be distilled, blended and aged in country (Scotland and US respectively); and has specific requirements about aging (for example, all Scotch must be aged three years, while Straight Bourbons must be aged a minimum of two years).
Japan has no such restrictions on provenance. One of the persistent phenomena that has cropped up recently is Japanese distillers resorting to various means to increase stock and put products on shelves. This trend has arisen due to three major factors:
1. The name recognition and marketing success of Japanese whisky is growing exponentially overseas, which means that demand keeps increasing.
2. There is a dearth of aged, good Japanese whisky across the board – triggered by a massive slow-down in production in the 1980’s, when many distilleries went under. The industry as a whole has not fully recovered. Japanese distillers simply do not have enough matured stock available to service the growing demand.
3. Putting (1) and (2) together, the lack of regulations and/or rigorous enforcement of standards has created loopholes that make the provenance of the average bottle of Japanese whisky suspect in many cases.
What are Distillers Doing? The Role of Imports
Distillers are resorting to many methods to put product on shelves. Some bottles of (cheaper) Japanese whisky may contain as little as 10% of actual whisky, with other, neutral grain alcohols mixed in to raise the Alcohol by Volume (ABV).
There is also a huge rise in imported whisky stock, which is then used to create blends marketed under Japanese labels. For example, over 2014-18, imports of Canadian grain increased nearly 70%, according to IWSR, a London-based industry consultant. The Scotch Whisky Association reported that the bulk shipment volume of single-grain and blended-grain Scotch coming into Japanese ports grew by some 750% over 2013-18, while Japan’s consumption of grain spirit remained stagnant.
Given that many international customers (e.g. those in the US market) are unfamiliar with the full range of Japanese whiskies, distilleries can bring in alcohol from Canada, Scotland and elsewhere, rebottle them with a label that prominently features kanji script and sell it – creating an unsavory cycle of “whisky laundering”, as some call it.
It’s up to the marketers to decide how transparent they are going to be.
The Need for Transparency
Before we discuss truth in advertising, it’s important to note that the production of cheaper whisky using non-proprietary stock are not all related to the manufacturing slow-downs 30+ years ago. Cheaper blends are often imported by major distilleries to serve domestic markets with cost friendly options. For example, the Black Nikka Clear range features imported whiskies and as spirits matured less than three years – distinct from Nikka’s self-distilled and matured whiskies.
Regardless, it remains the case that even major distillers are having problems with meeting the demand for aged whisky. Nikka recently stopped adding age statements to some of its products. Hakushu 12-year-old and Hibiki 17 have been withdrawn from the market. These can be directly traced to the industry decline in the mid-80’s.
Some major distillers follow the principle of self-reporting. For example, the Chichibu Distillery in Saitama Prefecture imports plenty of bulk spirit from around the globe. Master distiller Ichiro Akuto has taken a stand by clearly selling his flagship Malt & Grain as a “World Blended Whisky”.
Nikka distillery in Haido, Japan below.
Suntory followed suit by the release of Ao World Whisky, which is a combination of blends from Japan, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the US.
While such efforts at transparency are laudable, the fact of the matter is that they are voluntary and not dictated by regulations and enforcement of the same. Even master distillers have not asked for universal standards to be adopted. Thus, self-reporting is hardly the norm for many new, less reputed players who have no compunction in creating blends that are cheap and of lower quality – and then marketing them under the generic label of Japanese whisky.
Besides the above, the manufacturing process, and choices made by distillers in Japan also creates a distinctive difference between Japanese and Scotch whiskies.
How Is Japanese Whisky Made?
With all the confusion and lack of regulations, and often transparency issues, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Japanese whisky can be really good. Even so, the taste of the Japanese clientele has introduced some non-subtle differences in production styles.
The Raw Ingredients
The raw ingredients for Japanese Single Malt whisky are the same as those used to make Scotch whisky. Single malt Japanese whisky uses mainly malt barley, yeast and water. Malt barley is sometimes imported from Scotland itself. Special batches of peated malts are used from time to time to produce smoky whiskies. Blends use various other grains and/or imported spirits, as well as molasses, food coloring and a whole host of other ingredients to enhance color and taste that Scotch purists would heavily frown upon.
Water and Climate
It has been said that nature creates 50% of the flavor of the whisky. In Japan, the microsystems where some premier distilleries have located resemble the cool, crisp climate of Scotland. In other cases, like Yamazaki products, the quality of the water used is considered to be pure beyond belief. Location is a choice that may determine quality.
In Scotland, distillers use one strain of (typically dry) yeast, given their focus on high ABV yield. The Japanese tend to be much more meticulous, perhaps given their 1200+ years of brewing sake. They employ multiple yeast strains and combine them in ways that different flavors are produced. Plus, the fermentation process is different. The Japanese usually have full control of their own yeast supply, with strains that they have cultivated and perfected over the centuries.
Another feature of the Japanese grain mashing process is the type of wort they produce. In general, two types of wash can be produced after the grains are mashed, the wort liquid itself is either cloudy or clear. Cloudy worts produce larger amounts of lipids during fermentation, adding high notes of nutty/cereal flavor to the whisky. This type of finish is prized in Scotland, so Scotch whisky is usually made with cloudy wort – clear wort is produced very occasionally.
The Japanese, on the other hand, produce clear wort almost 100% of the time, by either recycling the wort through the grain bed of the mash (for further filtration) or cycling the wort through a secondary vessel, with a larger surface, called a lauter tun (see below).
The Japanese value the multitude of different factors that can be influenced during fermentation by using a clear wort.
While fermentation follows the same general principle as in Scotch, Japanese distillers are known to mix a second strain of yeast during fermentation, which encourages further fermentation and for bacteria to form in the wash. Scottish distillers do this as well, occasionally, but scientists have proven that the bacteria formed during the production of the wash in Japan is markedly different than that produced in Scotland. This has to do with the quality of the yeast, how its combined and its uses. The end wash produced in Japan is distinctly different than the typical Scottish product.
Distillation in Japan follows the same general principles as in Scotland, but one distinction remains. Unlike the uniform (usually copper pot stills, double distilled) methods used by each Scottish distillery, the large Japanese distilleries employ many pot stills and continuous stills at various locations – since all manners of single malt and grain whiskeys are produced under the same roof, in different styles, straight and blended. But the general concept remains double distillation. Chill filtration is more popular in Japan than in many Scottish distilleries, since the Japanese are less attuned to the heavy, smoky flavors on the palate.
Ageing in Japanese Oak Mizunara Barrels
Unlike Scotch, Japanese whiskies are not always aged three years. When you get into the higher end name brands, you will find 12+ years matured whiskies, but it’s equally likely that the ageing process is not more than three years – which is considered to be the minimum general standard for a good Japanese whisky. In addition, though, Japanese whisky is aged in barrels that can impart distinctly different flavor tones to the end product.
In addition to European and American Oak, Japanese distilleries also use the local Mizunara Oak wood for whisky barrels. Mizunara oak is different in the types of lactones it imparts to the whisky. All types of oak wood impart a coconutty flavor, but Mizunara Oak contains trans-lactones which interact with the cis-lactones found in every type of oak. This makes the wood less flavor-active, but the range of coconut flavors widens, and a strong incense flavor is also added. While the effects are not fully understood – it is clear that the final product is uniquely Japanese, regardless of the number of years the whisky has been aged before bottling.
Bottling and Selling
As mentioned before, the distilleries are still struggling from the production slowdown and stoppage some 35 years back. That is a really short period in terms of whisky production and ageing, it may take at least another generation before adequate stock comes back on line. As a result, some products that are bottled and sold as Japanese may be blends using imports from other parts of the world. In spite of this, Japanese whisky has established a marketing label that is unique and prized around the world.
The other factor that changes the end product in Japan is the propensity to add color, taste, caramel and fruity flavoring and employ other mixes that Scotch purists would frown upon. This is in tune with the Japanese tradition of infusing flavor into spirits – as one finds in sake, sochu and various liqueurs.
Japanese whisky is a cousin to Scotch, especially Single Malt, but there are many variations due to the conditions in Japan – which include climate, water, yeast management, organization of the industry, steps taken during the production process and finally, the practice of mixing in Japanese distilled whisky with overseas stock. The end result is a brew that tastes “eerily like Scotch whisky”, according to some, but has distinctive characteristics that set it apart.
Currently, and ever since Yamakazi’s 2013 Single Malt Sherry Cask was declared to be “the best whisky in the world”, Japanese whisky is on a roll marketing wise. Demand has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past two decades.
One thing that shocks those unfamiliar with Japanese whisky brands is how expensive the offerings typically are. While there are some blends and “world whiskies” that are available for under $50, most good Japanese whisky prices are at par, or more expensive, than comparable brands of Scotch. We examine the reasons next.
Why is Japanese Whisky So Expensive?
There are conventional reasons why Japanese whisky is expensive. Craftsmanship is a key component in Japan, in terms of proper fermentation, clear worts that they can work with, yeast management and finally, choosing barrels that impart distinctive flavors. So, one basic explanation for the price of Japanese whisky is simply that it’s well-crafted.
However, there is a second explanation. As we mentioned above, the Japanese whisky industry went through a massive market-driven downturn during the 1980’s. The drops in demand for whisky all over Japan were driven by the revival of shochu and its many subtle flavors, which was compounded by the rising popularity of beer and liqueurs. This caused a shift in production from whisky to other liquors. For example, Nikka completely halted production at the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries for several years.
By the early 2000’s, the stock of good, matured whisky was desperately low. Not only did stocks ran low everywhere (especially with some major distillers suspending production), many distilleries, such as Hanyu and Karuizawa, went out of business.
Fortunes from a demand perspective changed abruptly when Suntory’s Yamazaki 12-Year-Old won a Gold at the International Spirits Challenge in 2003. The next year, Hibiki 30-Year-Old won a trophy at the same competition. Japanese whisky set off on a 15+ year run.
As demand kept rising, the producers faced a dilemma – their warehouses often stood bare. This trend manifested itself in many ways, such as the discontinuation (or very limited availability) of 12- and 17- year old brands from major brands, and also a number of top end distilleries coming out with Non-Age Stated (NAS) products.
This odd market condition has created three classes of people who buy Japanese whisky these days: consumers, collectors and investors. The latter two classes are seldom buying bottles to drink – in fact, if they are investors, it doesn’t make sense.
How Expensive Can Japanese Whisky Get?
Everything’s relative. The single most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold is Macallan’s Fine and Rare 60-Year-Old 1926, which was sold at auction for $1.9 million in October 2019.
Before this sale, though, Japanese Scotches set record prices in successive years. For example:
- A bottle of Yamazaki 50-Year-Old sold for $129,000 in 2016
- A bottle of Karuizawa 52-Year-Old sold for $128,000 in Spring of 2017
- A bottle of Yamazaki 50-Year-Old sold for $299,000 in Jan 2018
Old Japanese stock is valued due to their rarity. While 25- or 30-year old Single Malt Scotch bottles are not cheap, there are sufficient quantities available from among the 120+ Scottish distilleries. Japan did not even start brewing in earnest till the 1930’s, there have been many stops and starts since then. The 1980’s downturn, and the subsequent non-production by, and closures of, distilleries put a severe dent on available stock. One of the reasons that Karuizawa 52-Year-Old sold for the price shown above is the closure of the distillery – after which its stock was bought and divided among other distilleries before being marketed in small batches.
This same trend creates a range of very expensive, if not quite as astronomically priced, Japanese whiskies.
Very High Priced Old Japanese Single Malts
One of the dilemmas faced by those who buy Japanese whiskies priced significantly over $1000, (but not in the $100,000+ range) is whether one should drink it. As an illustration, if you were to buy a $10,000 bottle of Japanese whisky, you could drink it – but do you want to forego the chance of selling it for 5 to 10 times that amount in ten years or less?
Here are a few examples of Japanese whiskies that are closer to being collection or investment-grade than ones that are readily bought to consume:
- Suntory Hakushu 25-Year-Old $5,995
- Nikka Yoichi 1987 (23-Year-Old Cask #112814 Mellow) – $4,663
- Nikka Yoichi 1987 (18-Year-Old Cask #254816) – $4,663
- Nikka Miyagikyo 1986 (22-Year-Old Cask #80283) – $3,665
- SMWS 116.4 (Yoichi) (1988 13-Year-Old) – $2,667
This high end of the market may not be the right yardstick to measure how Japanese whisky is valued compared to Scotches. So, let’s look at the bottles that retail for under $1200 – ones that may be bought by collectors or investors, but are more frequently bought by consumers.
Prices for “High-Roller” Scotch and Japanese Whisky
The table below compares 15 high-end Scotch whiskies with the same number of high-end Japanese whiskies. The list of Scotches, with recent prices quoted, is provided for illustrative purposes only per https://www.liquor.com/slideshows/best-expensive-scotch/ The side by side list of Japanese whiskies serves to compare and contrast with comparable quality Scotch whiskies and illustrate the general point of where Japanese whisky stands in relation to Scotch.
Comparison of Scotch and Japanese Whisky Prices at the Higher End
Scotch Price Japanese Whisky Bunnahabhain 25 Year $676 Nikka Yoichi 15-Year-Old $1200 Bowmore 25 Year $460 Nikka Miyagikyo 15-Year-Old $1066 Dalmore King Alexander III $257 Hibiki 17-Year-Old $795 Macallan 18 Year Sherry Oak $235 Suntory Hibiki 21-Year-Old $795 The Balvenie 21 Year Port Wood $256 Suntory Hakushu 18-Year-Old $732 $218 Nikka Yoichi and Miyagikyo Rum Cask Finish $665 Glenmorangie Signet $211 Hibiki 12-Year-Old $624 Springbank 18 Year $200 Mars Komagatake Yakushima Aging 2020 $390 Talisker 18 Year $140 Ichiro’s Malt and Grain World Blended $265 Springbank 15 Year $129 Suntory Hakushu 12 Year $233 Glenmorangie 18 Year $127 Suntory Yamazaki 12-Year-Old Text $166 The Glenlivet 18 Year $121 Akashi Single Malt $133 Glenmorangie Allta $113 Hibiki Harmony NAS $120 Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition $107 Chichibu Ichiro’s Malt and Grain $102 $107 Nikka Yoichi/Miyagikyo Single Malt $100
Bunnahabhain 25 Year
Nikka Yoichi 15-Year-Old
Bowmore 25 Year
Nikka Miyagikyo 15-Year-Old
Dalmore King Alexander III
Macallan 18 Year Sherry Oak
Suntory Hibiki 21-Year-Old
The Balvenie 21 Year Port Wood
Suntory Hakushu 18-Year-Old
Nikka Yoichi and Miyagikyo Rum Cask Finish
Springbank 18 Year
Mars Komagatake Yakushima Aging 2020
Talisker 18 Year
Ichiro’s Malt and Grain World Blended
Springbank 15 Year
Suntory Hakushu 12 Year
Glenmorangie 18 Year
Suntory Yamazaki 12-Year-Old
The Glenlivet 18 Year
Akashi Single Malt
Hibiki Harmony NAS
Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition
Chichibu Ichiro’s Malt and Grain
Nikka Yoichi/Miyagikyo Single Malt
As the table above illustrates, there is neck-to-neck competition on prices for good, high end Japanese whisky and Scotch. One of the interesting points to note is that all the Scotches on the list above are single malts, with the sole exception of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, which is among a very select group of blended Scotches that are priced above $100.
Another interesting point is that the list above contains a mix of Japanese whiskies that are not age specified or are blended. Every high-end Japanese whisky – referring to the examples provided in the previous segments, have age marked. This is symptomatic of two things: (a) Japanese whiskies with age provenance sell for significant prices once they cross 17 years of age, and (b) at the lower end, so to speak, there is a significant diversity as you can see in our Top Recommended Japanese Whiskies for Beginners to Try Article.
Conclusion: Is Japanese Whisky Any Good?
Japan has carefully cultivated an image that all whisky gets produced in pristine conditions like this, with all the dedication of the head monk at a Shinto shrine:
The picture may be very different, as we mentioned above, due to the lack of proper regulations and the lack of good, aged stock. In spite of that, though, Japanese whisky is good. The best Japanese whisky can be placed at par with premium Scotch. One has to be discerning and know what you are paying for.