THE UNIQUE STORIES OF JAPANESE SCOTCH WHISKY DISTILLERIES

Japanese Scotch Whisky
Japanese Scotch Whisky Photo courtesy of Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

THE UNIQUE STORIES OF  JAPANESE SCOTCH WHISKY DISTILLERIES

THE JAPANESE SCOTCH WHISKY MAKERS

The Japanese have a reputation for being relentless in their pursuit of authenticity and perfection which usually yields an improvement on the original.  From televisions to automobiles, history is rife with examples that iillustrate this point.  In the case of whiskies, rather than merely trying to replicate textbook examples of Scottish whiskies, domestic producers have worked diligently to develop their own distinctive styles from the materials of the place of origin.  The French concept of terroir applies perfectly to these whiskies.  Terroir is often defined by a sense of place and denotes the special characteristics that geography, geology and climate  paint onto the wine or whisky’s flavors, aromas, texture and colors.


Japanese Scotch Whisky Maker Map

Japanese Scotch Whisky Map Courtesy of Tokiwa Imports

Generally speaking, Japanese whiskies tend to possess an abundance of fruit with soft textural edges and pristine balance.  This trifecta of characteristics allows these whiskies to pair very well with food.  They are often somewhat sweeter and almost always more subtle than their global counterparts – a fact that can be attributed to the preferences of the Japanese palate.  Masculine and Feminine styles do exist though, in spite of the bent towards subtlety.


Suntory Yamazaki Distillery
Suntory Yamazaki Distillery photo courtesy of Yamazaki

SUNTORY YAMAZAKI DISTILLERY

SHIMAMOTO, OSAKA

Yamazaki was Japan’s first malt whisky distillery, established in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory and one of the fathers of Japanese Whisky, on a site chosen for the quality of its water source and its proximity to Kyoto. The production of an unblended single malt whisky began with the in 1989 when Suntory at the time of the company’s 90th anniversary.  Yamazaki whiskies have a sweeter, caramel taste that is very soft texture on the palate, making it one of the most approachable whiskies in Japan.

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery Founder
CLICK TO READ MORE ABOUT YAMAZAKI….

Water is one of the primary ingredients of whisky as it imparts not only taste but texture tothe final product.  As water flows down over the rocky terrain of nearby Mt. Tennozan it picks up minerals the softens it.  This water is highly regarded and is used by the renowned tea ceremony master, Senno Rikyu who also built a tea ceremony house there just to make tea.  The water is so good that it qualified as one of the “Selected 100 Exquisite Waters of Japan”. A nearby river helps regulate the humidity of the area, making it perfect for aging whisky.  The Yamazaki Distillery is one of Japan’s largest, equipped with 17 wash backs and 12 pot stills that contribute to one of Suntory’s best selling whiskies.

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery Whisky
Suntory Yamazaki Distillery Whisky photo courtesy of Yamazaki

Yamazaki’s Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 has toppled more than 1,000 challengers to be seize the title best whisky in the world by prominent critic Jim Murray in his Whisky Bible 2015, who referred to the amber nectar as ‘near indescribable genius.’  He said the whisky had a ‘nose of exquisite boldness’ and a finish of ‘light, teasing spice’, and scored it an impressive 97.5 marks out of 100.  The Whisky Bible describes the winning Yamazaki whisky as rich and fruity,” with a nose of “exquisite boldness” and finish of “light, teasing spice.”

WHISKIES

Yamazaki
Yamazaki 10 years old
Yamazaki 12 years old
Yamazaki 18 years old
Yamazaki 25 years old
Yamazaki Sherry Cask
Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel
Yamazaki Puncheon
Yamazaki Mizunara

Website


Suntory Hakushu Distillery
Suntory Hakushu Distillery photo courtesy of Suntory

SUNTORY HAKUSHU DISTILLERY

HOKUTO, YAMANASHI PREFECTURE

Located in a forest at the foot of Mt. Kaikomagatake in the Japanese Southern Alps, this whisky has a light and floral, herbaceous taste profile.  Here the water is soft and pure having passed slowly through layers of ancient granite rocks before reaching the surface.  Widely available throughout Japan the Hakushu whisky is more feminine in character compared to its cousin produced at Yamazaki.

The distillery itself is located within the picturesque Kai Forest making this whisky a product of a very unique environment in the world of distilling. The forest setting is said to add the aromatic floral – if not herbaceous – character to the whisky. Hakushu is a wonderful distillery to visit in spring or autumn when the forest leaf foliage is at its most beautiful.

Hakushu Whisky
Hakushu 12 year old Whisky photo courtesy of Suntory

Here multiple styles of whisky are produced by through different combinations of the six wash and six spirit stills.  The main products from the distillery are “Hakushu”, “Hakushu 10 Years Old”, “Hakushu 12 Years Old” and “Hakushu 18 Years Old”.  “Hakushu Heavily Peated”, with its distinctively delicate, sweet and smoky aroma, is released only in limited quantities. Hakushu Distillery offers a full range of facilities to welcome visitors throughout the year.

WHISKIES

Hakushu
Hakushu 10 years old
Hakushu 12 years old
Hakushu 18 years old
Hakushu 25 years old
Hakushu Heavily Peated

Website


ICHIRO WHISKY CHICHIBU DISTILLERY
ICHIRO WHISKY CHICHIBU DISTILLERY photo courtesy CHICHIBU

ICHIRO’S CHICHIBU DISTILLERY

CHICHIBU, SAITAMA

Chichibu Distillery is owned by Venture Whisky and was  founded by Ichiro AKUTO,  grandson of the founder of the now-closed Hanyu distillery. The distillery started its operations in February, 2008 and has been making single malt whisky influenced by the local climate.

Chichibu Distillery was established in Chichibu City, in Saitama Prefecture, around 100km north-west of Tokyo. There is a small mill, a mash tun, washbacks made with  Japanese  oak (Mizunara) and a pair of  small copper pot stills, manufactured by Forsyths of Elgin, Scotland.

The  distillery was built upon a small hill about half-an-hour’s drive from the centre of  Chichibu City.  The environment in the area is hot and humid in the summer but extremely cold in the winter with the temperature dropping to below zero in the evenings and early morning.  Such an extreme environment is said to have an enormous influence on the aging of whisky, and because of that, Chichibu Distillery’s whiskies are fruity and well-balanced despite their short aging periods.

Although small in scale, the Chichibu Distillery has big dreams and ambitions. Every year their staff travel to the UK to study floor-malting; they then utilize this knowledge to malt barley from Saitama Prefecture at the Chichibu Distillery. Locally produced and malted barley has only accounting for a small part of their production up to now, but is already being used in the making of the Chichibu Single Malt. Whilst faithfully following traditional Scotch whisky production methods, the distillery is trying to carve out its own distinctive character nurtured by Chichibu’s natural environment.  Day in, day out, various types of casks are being tried out in search of the unique identity best suited to Chichibu.

The current main brands include a vatted malt called “Double Distilleries”, produced by blending malts from Hanyu Distillery and Chichibu Distillery, “Wine Wood Reserve” and “Mizunara (Japanese oak) Wood Reserve”. In addition, single malts such as “Chichibu The First 3 Years Old”, “Chichibu The Floor Malted 3 Years Old” and “Chichibu The Peated”, have recently been released in limited quantities.  All of these labels are enjoying a glowing reputation, both domestically and overseas,  and have won numerous awards, keeping them in the spotlight for whisky fans the world over.

WHISKIES

Ichiro’s Malt Malt & Grain White Label
Ichiro’s Malt Malt & Grain Premium Black Label
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries
Ichiro’s Malt Wine Wood Reserve
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The First
Ichiro’s Malt The Floor Malted
Ichiro’s Malt The Peated
Ichiro’s Malt 23 years old
Ichiro’s Malt Card Series
Ichiro’s Choice Single Grain Kawasaki

No Website


NIKKA WHISKY YOICHI
Nikka Whisky ageing in toasted oak barrels  Photo Copyright 2015 LuxNiseko

NIKKA YOICHI DISTILLERY

YOICHI, HOKKAIDO

Back in 1920 Yoichi was a northern town not quite on the coast and of seemingly little importance to mainland Japan.  Where most see nothing though, sometimes one will see opportunity.  Today Nikka is recognized by whisky connoisseurs for both its rising stature as a producer of one of the world’s finest whiskies and as a producer with deep roots connecting the Northern island of Japan to the Scottish Isles.  How this came to be is the remarkable story of how luck, self-belief and an artisan’s vision melded together to create an extraordinary success story.  This is Masataka Tetsuru‘s story which is also the story of the birth of Japanese whisky.

He learnt that “The distillery should be located in a cold climate with an appropriate

NIKKA YOICHI SINGLE MALT WHISKY
CLICK TO READ MORE ABOUT YOICHI ….

humidity, there should be a high quality water source and an abundant supply of  herbaceous peat. Furthermore it should be close to an area where barley is grown and where there are forests to supply wood to make barrels and also the coal necessary to fire the stills.”

To this day, the distillation process has remained very traditional.  At Yoichi, the pot stills continue to be heated by coal fire, a practice which even the Scottish Whiskey makers have since given up as it is more challenging to control.  Coal-fired stills supply very strong direct heat that slightly burns the contents resting on the bottom of the still.  Controlled effectively it can give a whisky a powerful, even spicy character.  The small onion-shaped stills have relatively straight sides, which combined with a descending neck, allows heavier elements to pass into the spirit.  This unique attribute gives the Yoichi whisky a richness and unctuous texture and further definition of its style.

NIKKA YOICHI SINGLE MALT
NIKKA YOICHI SINGLE MALT 15 YEAR photo courtesy of Nikka

Yoichi is a small eponymous coastal city benefiting from a variable and humid climate.  Yoichi is located 50km west of Sapporo, and is well known for its snow festival.  As Masataka had identified earlier in his career, Yoichi was ideal site for the construction of his dream.  It was to be a distillery built in the purest Scottish tradition with slower heating coal-fired stills.  The local peat bogs would be the original source of Yoichi’s subtle smoky notes which, combined with the wisping sea air imprints an identifiable original character on Masataka Taketsuru’s whiskies.  Hokkaido spring water is also exceptionally pure and imparts both purity and sensuous texture distilled and brewed beverages.

WHISKIES

Single Malt Yoichi
Single Malt Yoichi 10 years old
Single Malt Yoichi 12 years old
Single Malt Yoichi 15 years old
Single Malt Yoichi 20 years old
Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 years old
Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 years old
Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 years old
Taketsuru Pure Malt 35 years old
Nikka From the Barrel
Tsuru 17 years old
Nikka the Blend
Nikka Gold & Gold

Website


MIYAGIKYO DISTILLERY
MIYAGIKYO DISTILLERY photo courtesy Nikka

NIKKA MIYAGIKYO DISTILLERY

SENDAI, MIYAGI PREFECTURE

Masataka Taketsuru, preferred to blend whiskies from several different climates and so in 1969 opened Miyagikyo Distillery to complement Yoichi Distillery.  The presence of nearby Nikkagawa River creates an ideal environment for crafting mild, lowland-style whisky. Legend has it that founder Masataka Taketsuru sipped a Black Nikka Whisky with added local water and upon tasting it decided to build the 2nd distillery there.  Unique to Miyagikyo Distillery is the use of a type of pot still utilizing steam heating.  This method allows distillation to be done more slowly and at a lower temperature than the usual method of heating directly over fire.  The results is a mild-flavored whisky with a soft texture in the mouth.

NIKKA MIYAGIKO SINGLE MALT
NIKKA MIYAGIKO SINGLE MALT 15 YEAR photo courtesy of Nikka

At Miyagikyo Distillery, two Coffey stills, a type now very rarely used anywhere in the world,  made by Blairs Limited of Glasgow, are also in use. The Coffey still, an early continuous still invented by Aeneas Coffey, is said to leave more flavour in malts than the more widely-used types of continuous stills. However, it can only be operated by a very limited number of master distillers as its control is extremely difficult. Originally a part of the Nikka Nishinomiya Plant,the stills were moved to Miyagikyo in 1999, and produce grain whiskies from corn and malt.

WHISKIES

Single Malt Miyagikyo
Single Malt Miyagikyo 10 years old
Single Malt Miyagikyo 12 year old
Single Malt Miyagikyo 15 years old
Single Malt Sendai 8 years old
Single Malt Sendai 12 years old
Nikka All Malt

Website


Eigashima Distillery
Eigashima Shuzo Distillery photo courtesy Eigashima

EIGASHIMA SHUZO DISTILLERY

AKASHI, HYOGO PREFECTURE

Eigashima Shuzo Distillery was originally a sake and shochu (grain spirits like potato) producer.  Increasing domestic demand for imported whiskies convinced the owner to convert the factory into a whisky distillery.  Adapting their expertise from shochu to making whisky took them into new territory.  Incredibly they began by only using the facilities and know-how applied from shochu-making.
Eigashima now produce only Scottish-style malt whiskies on a very small scale in comparison to Nikka or Suntory.  Unique to a Japanese distillery is the usie of only specially-selected barley imported directly from Scotland.  Water is sourced from the same underground source used previously in making Japanese sake.

The current still house was newly built in 1984, and equipment such as the potstills, washbacks were all moved to the new facility.  A slate covered roof with insulated walls forms the storage warehouse. The influence of the local climate makes it a very unique environment to mature whisky compared to other distillers’ warehouses, with  Hyogo experiences large annual swings in temperature which helps Eigashima whisky to mature faster.

WHISKIES

White Oak Akashi Blended
White Oak Single Malt
White Oak Akashi 14 years old

Website