Go for Gold in the Land of the Rising Sun

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Whisky, a word that once called to mind Scottish liquid gold, has recently been facing a bit of an identity crisis. It now conjures associations with Japan, whose distinct whiskies are fast gaining favour around the world. This trend, some argue, began with Yamazaki, the award-winning single malt that brought Japanese whisky to the forefront in 2015 when it was crowned as best whisky in the world, heralding a shift in preference toward Asian whiskies.

Yamazaki
Yamazaki

Sake to Whisky

Yamazaki’s success did not occur overnight, and can traced all the way to the 1920s with the arrival of Masataka Taketsuru, who’s popularly known as the father of Japanese whisky. He came from a long line of sake brewers and intended to carry on his family tradition. But while working at a Japanese liquor company, his boss first turned him onto the charms of Scottish whisky, perhaps sensing an untapped opportunity to recreate it in Japan.

Hiroya Yamazaki
Hiroya Yamazaki

He was shipped off to Scotland where he apprenticed in multiple distilleries and learnt firsthand, the art of blending whisky. On his return to Japan, his dreams of malt and mash were dashed with the economy in turmoil. Fortunately, an ambitious entrepreneur Shinijo Torii, who owned one of the oldest alcohol distribution companies in Japan was venturing into the whisky market around the same time. He recruited Taketsuru and they jointly established the first commercial Japanese whisky distillery in 1923 named Yamazaki, after the suburb of Kyoto in which it was situated.

The Yamazaki secret

The distillery is found at the at the foothills of Mt Tenno, where the rivers Katsura, Uji, and Kizu meet, and its moisture-laden air and extreme temperatures greatly aid in the process of maturation. While makers of this Japanese whiskey made an effort to stay true to its Scottish origins, its taste was altered ever so slightly to appeal to the Japanese palette. So it was infused with a more earthy notes and its storage played no small part. The casks are made of a native oak called Mizunara which imparts a distinct aroma and oaky taste, resulting in a whole new concoct.

The Yamazaki Distillery
The Yamazaki Distillery

But what makes this Japanese whisky notable is their “Wakon Yosai” strategy, roughly translated as ‘Western technology, Japanese spirit”. While they import the best technology and the barley from Scotland, they add a pinch of Japanese ingenuity. The distillery uses bamboo wash backs (large containers where the yeast is added at the start of the brewing process) instead of steel to induce a local taste, and also  adheres to a process called vertical blending, where the whisky is blended entirely in-house, from their own stills, to prevent dilution from distilleries so as to ensure Yamazaki’s unique taste.

Flight to Fame

Even though whiskey mavens have been touting this Japanese whisky since the early aughts, Yamazaki received world acclaim when its Sherry Cask 2013 was hailed as “near indescribable genius” by Jim Murray in his World Whiskey Bible 2015, the world’s leading whisky guide. It was the first time that a single malt from Japan had claimed the top spot as the world’s best whisky, ushering a boom in its demand. Soon, people who ordered a large on the rocks had to settle for shots.

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Observing the growing popularity of Japanese whisky and its subsequent shortage, Mark Newton, an editor of Malt, one of the most popular whisky blogs, said, “The growth in Japanese whisky has been driven in part by a global interest in single malt whiskies. Since Scotch whisky has been unable in part to keep up with a never-expected surge in global demand, the quality may have been affected. Japan however – and this is only really among a handful of large producers to start with – simply continued to focus on quality. Among the Japanese distilleries are legendary whiskies from the likes of the closed distillery Karuizawa, and some of the best whiskies in the world are coming from Chichibu, so there is still that absolute focus on quality above anything else. Of course, the problem now is that demand has caught up with Japanese whisky and we see real shortages for the past couple of years. It’s also now very expensive to get outside of Japan!”

Be it the strategic launches, its distinctive taste or the lax laws that allow for more experimentation in the blend, there’s no doubting the increased demand for Asian whiskies.

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