When you think whisky, do you think Japan?  When I think of single malts and whisky, the image that comes to mind is of brawny men in kilts pushing barrels about in a cellar.  However, I am told by my bar tender friend in America to picture whisky distilleries set amongst a backdrop of cherry blossoms,  as Japan with its meticulous attention to detail in all things, is beating the Scots at their own game.

There has been a seismic shift in recent years in the production of whisky with the Japanese now producing world leading whiskies.  Several companies produce whisky in Japan, but the two best-known and most widely available are Suntory and Nikka. Both produces blended as well as single malt whiskies and blended malt whiskies, with their main blended whiskies being Suntory Kakubin and Black Nikka Clear.

The history of whisky in Japan stretches back a century, and does find its roots in Scotch, in particular. Early pioneers Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru founders of Suntory and Nikka brands began by emulating how the Scots made whisky.  In 1918 Torii invested his family fortune in building Japan’s first whisky distillery in the Yamazaki region just outside Kyoto.  Yamazaki is considered the source of the purest water in Japan; it is where three rivers meet – the Katsura, Uji and Kizu. Torii, after his travels through Scotland, thought the misty climate of that region would be ideally suited for whisky.

Ridiculed and proved right by the naysayers, Torii’s first whisky Suntory Shirofuda, sadly failed to win over the Japanese.  Undeterred he figured out rather than recreating what the Scots had been doing for hundreds of years, he had to draw upon the essence of what Japan does best – a meticulous respect for each ingredient and pure undivided attention to the process. His hard work and perseverance paid off as Japanese whisky today is winning accolades from around the world, often beating products from Scotland.

The essential difference between the classic whiskies of Scotland and those of Suntory is the type of barrels used for the ageing process. Single malts from Scotland are aged in a wide array of barrels, mostly made of French or American oak that were previously used to age sherry or Kentucky bourbon. The single malts picked up the residual essence and flavourings from the barrels, which added character to their respective flavour profiles.

The whiskies of Suntory have a distinctively Japanese touch, as only mizunara oak is used to age them and the resulting Japanese whiskies are a harmonious reflection of the place they’re from, with a purity of the sum of the ingredients and the skill of the artisans at Suntory.

The other famous pioneer of whisky in Japan is a chemist known as Masataka Taketsuru.  He was born in 1894 in Takehara, Hiroshima to a family that had owned a sake brewery since 1733. He journeyed to Scotland in 1918 and enrolled at the University of Glasgow to learn his trade.  After apprenticing at three distilleries he returned to Japan as an expert distiller for Torii in 1923 and helped set up the distillery in Yamazaki.  By 1934 he founded his own distilling company, Dai Nippon Kaju K.K., in Yoichi on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. He believed that this part of Japan was most like Scotland.  Set on a scenic stretch of coastline, with the chill of northern coastal air, it mirrors Scotland with a climate well-suited to long ageing.

He later renamed the company Nikka. Nikka whisky was first sold in October 1940, but decades elapsed before the spirit took off.  In 2001, Whisky Magazine honoured Nikka’s 10-Year Yoichi as its “Best of the Best.” Spirits specialists across the world took note and the demand for Japanese whisky kicked off.  Exports to America exploded, growing by more than 1000% in just five years. Japanese whiskies continue to reign today, with Nikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt 17-Year taking the title of “World’s Best Blended Malt,” and Suntory’s Hakushu 25 Year Old winning “World’s Best Single Malt,” at the 2018 World Whiskies Awards just a few weeks ago.

The international sales chief of Nikka, Naoki Tomoyoshi said: “Our respect towards tradition and mentality of fine-tuning each process to an extreme level has made us unique in today’s world…we value tradition and we believed in it.”

The Japanese mentality of preciseness to detail and observing tradition translates into Japanese bar culture where there’s a desire for the exacting and ceremonial. Take the simple highball, a two-ingredient cocktail is made with a fastidious attention to detail, zen-like focus, and the highest quality ingredients. As Japanese whisky has taken off in the States, many of the bars that celebrate it carry on this style of bartending as well, paying respect to a spirit that was meticulously made.

Finally, Japanese whisky is referred to as ‘whisky’ rather than ‘whiskey’ because of the predominantly Scotch influence on the Japanese whisky industry.   An ‘e’ is added to the word when describing an Irish or American product.


Japanese High Ball


  • 45ml Japanese whisky, chilled in the freezer
  • 100ml cold sparkling water
  • Clear cracked ice


  • Carefully stack large chunks of cracked ice into a tower, fill the glass but allow room for a bar spoon to slide down the side.
  • Carefully pour the whisky into the glass so it doesn’t touch the top of the ice.
  • Pour soda water in the same manner, to within 1/4 inch of the top of the glass.
  • Insert the bar spoon down the side of the glass and under the stack of ice.
  • Wiggle the spoon up and down to incorporate the whiskey and soda. Stir in a circle several times (at least 13 times.)
  • Swizzle the bar spoon up out of the glass so that the soda froths, making an appealing head on the drink. Serve immediately.

#WorldWhiskyDay is on the 19th May 2018.

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