It may surprise you to learn that Japan is the third-largest producer of whisky, behind Scotland and the United States, although the nation has only been making this spirit since 1923. Japanese whisky was largely overlooked until 2003 when Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 Year Old won the prestigious Gold Medal at the International Spirits Challenge. The following year, the Hibiki 30 Year Old won the same respected award. Subsequent wins in other major international competitions combined with serious auction results has solidified Japanese whisky’s place on the world stage and on the shelves of connoisseurs around the world.
FROM SCOTLAND TO JAPAN
Japan’s first recorded mention of whisky dates back to 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry gave the Imperial Court 70 gallons of Scotch and American whiskey, which was exceedingly well received. Meiji-era rulers encouraged the brewing of domestic versions, though the Japanese use of sweet potatoes rather than barley, corn and rye produced a very different product.
Japanese whisky, as we know it today, can trace its origins to one man: Masataka Taketsuru, known as “The Father of Japanese Whisky.” Taketsuru was sent to Scotland in 1918 to learn the art of distillation. He studied organic chemistry in Glasgow, and apprenticed at three distilleries in Speyside and Campbeltown. He returned to Japan in 1920 with a Scottish wife, Rita, and a notebook full of everything he had learned, which was to become Japan’s first guide to whisky production. Upon their arrival, the couple discovered that the company that had financed his trip to Scotland abandoned its plans to brew whisky due to a poor financial outlook after the First World War.
In 1921, Taketsuru was hired by Shinjiro Torii (1879-1962) who had been working to create Western-style liquors tailored to the Japanese palate. His company, Kotobukiya Limited—known today as Suntory—had launched a port-style wine in 1907, and was looking to expand into whisky distillation. The two men built the first Japanese distillery, Yamazaki, in 1923, on the outskirts of Kyoto.
At the end of his ten-year contract with Kotobukiya, Taketsuru left to establish his own company. He chose Yoichi, Hokkaido in the north of Japan as his ideal site, figuring it was closest to the Scottish climate in terms of humidity, air and climate. In 1934, he launched Dai Nippon Kaju, which translates to “The Great Japanese Juice Company” and began selling apple juice products while he readied his whisky business. Two years later, he began distillation and by 1940 the first bottle of Nikka Whisky was launched.
OLD TRADITIONS, NEW INNOVATIONS
Taketsuru sought to instil Japanese whisky with the austerity and tradition of its Scottish counterpart. As in the Scotch tradition, Japanese whisky is double-distilled before aging in wood barrels. It tends to be drier and smokier than an American bourbon or rye, with some enthusiasts considering it closer to a Speyside or Lowland whisky. A few distilleries even import malted barley and peat from Scotland, though Japanese expressions tend to be more delicate and sweeter with only a light smokiness.
Japanese whiskies are not always tied to Scottish traditions and distillers experiment with peat as well as with cask finishes such as mizunara oak and plum wine casks. Different yeast strains, local water, fermentations and cut points all combine to create a unique product, playing with the traditionalist’s notion of what a single malt can be. Collectors love Japanese whiskies for their incredible range and complexity, with Wine Enthusiast noting that “they span from whisper-light to rich, caramel-forward expressions that resemble Bourbon, and even peated variations that will please fans of smoky Scotches.”
Only a handful of whisky distilleries have ever existed in Japan and Nikka and Suntory continue to dominate the market. Nikka now includes the original Yoichi distillery as well as its Miyagikyo property, while Suntory distills whisky at Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita, in addition to its staple blended whisky, Hibiki. Smaller distilleries in Japan have opened and closed, with the now-closed Karuizawa being one of the most covetable—serious collectors should take note of lot 91, a 35 Year Old bottle.
BIG IN JAPAN – AND ABROAD
The surge in Japanese whisky’s popularity outside of Japan caught distillers by surprise. Stocks of aged whiskies became depleted, and the scarcity of bottles has driven prices up. Japan’s extended recession in the 1990s meant that many distilleries closed and even large companies like Suntory and Nikka reduced production, translating into a lack of supply. Collectors are finding new bottles increasingly hard to come by, reminiscent of the mania for Pappy Van Winkle. In 2018, a bottle of Yamazaki 50 Year Old fetched HK $2,337,000 (nearly $400,000 CAD) at auction, holding the record for the most expensive bottle of whisky before being surpassed by The Macallan in 2019.
Collectors should take note to buy their Japanese whisky only from reputable sources, as Japan’s rules about what can be sold as whisky are notoriously lax. Whisky in Japan was originally intended only to service a domestic audience, and formal definitions were only introduced in 1989. These definitions are not rigorous, requiring the whisky to contain at least 10% aged malt whisky, with the rest of a bottle’s contents being open to interpretation. Companies are legally allowed to fill bottles with aged rice-based shochu, or even rebottle foreign spirits, all under the label of Japanese whisky. The New York Times explains that Scotch and Canadian whisky exports to Japan have boomed in recent years, “even as the retail sales of those whiskeys remain flat — implying that most of the imported spirit is being bought by distilleries and relabeled as Japanese.”
FIND OUT MORE about our March Fine spirits & fine wine auctions
We are pleased to offer 13 lots of Japanese whisky in our March Fine Spirits auction, ranging from the accessible to the elite.
Both auctions are offered online from March 1-9, 2021.
We are always delighted to answer any questions you may have about current offerings, how to buy, building a collection, or consigning wine and spirits.