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Pricey Japanese whisky underlines its esteemed pedigree

Julian Ryall Tokyo
December 24, 2022

A century ago, distillers took Scotland's national drink and refined it to the point at which Japanese brands are now consistently recognized as the best in the world.

Japan Hokkaido Whisky Industrie
Whiskies from Japan's 11 main distilleries can be found behind high-class bars around the worldImage: Carl Court/Getty Images

The recent frenzied sale of a batch of vintage Japanese whisky — 70 bottles were snapped up in less than a day, despite the 4.62 million yen (€32,800/$34,820) price tag on each — underlines the high regard that buyers around the world hold for a tipple that is arguably Japan's adopted national drink. 

The 700-milliliter (23.67-ounce) bottles of single malt whisky were produced by Takara Shuzo Co. at its distillery in Fukushima Prefecture under its Shirakawa 1958 brand. The whisky had been aged in barrels at the company's Shirakawa facility until it closed in 2003, when they were transported to Miyazaki Prefecture and further aged.  

A spokesman for the company told The Asahi newspaper that he had not anticipated the bottles being sold so rapidly, but others in the industry were less surprised.  

"Japanese whisky has been winning awards for some years now, and experts around the world who really know whisky typically praise it for the flavors, the attention to detail that goes into production and the history of whisky here," Kimitaka Toyama, president of Tokyo-based specialist dealer Whisk-e Ltd., told DW.  

Whisky's 'back story'

"There is also a really good 'back story' to how whisky first came to be commercially produced in Japan, and I think that is very interesting to many people," he said, adding that Japan will next year celebrate the 100th anniversary of when work began on what would become the nation's first malt whisky distillery, on the outskirts of Kyoto.  

Japan's fascination with a drink that is synonymous with Scotland can be traced back even further, with Masataka Taketsuru often credited with being the "father" of Japanese whisky.  

The son of a sake brewer in Hiroshima in 1894, Taketsuru studied brewing technology at high school in Osaka before boarding a ship to Scotland in 1918 with the aim of discovering the secrets behind the production of top-class whisky.

Production manager checks barrels as whisky is aged in a storeroom at the Hokkaido Akkeshi Whisky Distillery
The output of Japanese distilleries regularly beats Scottish brands in competitions Image: Carl Court/Getty Images

Taketsuru studied at the University of Glasgow before completing a series of apprenticeships at distilleries in Speyside, Bowness and Campbeltown. At each distillery, he built on his knowledge of distilling and blending.

After marrying Jessie Cowan — better known as Rita — he returned to Japan in late 1920 and joined forces with Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Kotobukiya, which later became modern drinks giant Suntory Holdings Ltd. 

Taketsuru was charged with overseeing the construction of the Yamazaki Distillery in an area outside Kyoto that is famous for the clarity and quality of its water. The distillery started producing in 1923 — with the first bottles of Suntory Shirofuda released in 1929.  

Birth of Nikka whisky 

Eleven years later, Taketsuru decided to strike out on his own and chose the town of Yoichi, on the harsh west coast of Hokkaido, for his first distillery. He reportedly selected Yoichi for a number of reasons, including the abundant supply of fresh water, the crisp air and the proximity of the ocean. Another factor, he stated, was that it reminded him of Scotland.  

True to his Scottish training, Taketsuru opted to use direct coal-fired pot stills, which experts say give his whiskies a bold, burnt flavor, while the geography of Yoichi also infuse the drink with a briny tang that is a legacy of the ocean.   

The very first batch of Taketsuru's Nikka whisky was put on the market in 1940, and the distillery today still uses the very same labor-intensive processes that he introduced nearly a century ago.

With temperature control critical to the quality of the final product, workers must open the heavy doors of the furnace beneath each still every 10 minutes during the distilling process to add more coal to the fire.  

It is that sort of commitment to perfection that makes Japanese whiskies stand out, said Chisaki Fujii, a spokeswoman for Suntory, which is today Japan's largest producer.  

 A worker takes a sample of whiskey from a cabinet beneath a Shinto shrine
Buyers worldwide hold a high regard for a tipple that is arguably Japan's adopted national drinkImage: Carl Court/Getty Images

Quality and craftsmanship 

"At Suntory, we believe our dedication to quality and 'monozukuri' [craftsmanship], as well as our coexistence with nature, has led to the creation of whiskies that have been well received at international competitions around the world," she said.

"Japan has very pure and soft water, which contributes to the subtleness of our whisky, and four seasons that change dramatically throughout the year, from hot and humid in the summer to very cold and dry in the winter months," she added.

These "dynamic changes" in the seasons serve to accelerate the maturation of whisky in wooden casks, she said, which help to reflect the fruitiness of sherry casks and the spices from Japanese oak in the finished product.

Though the market for Japanese whisky was largely domestic until 2000, overseas experts realized its potential when in 2001 Nikka's 10-year Yoichi single malt was awarded "Best of the Best" in the annual Whisky Magazine awards.

Today, the output of Japanese distilleries regularly beats Scottish brands in international competitions and whiskies from the nation's 11 main distilleries can be found behind high-class bars around the world.

Edited by: Keith Walker