The Story of Japanese Whisky
Don’t be mistaken when it comes to Japan and their whisky
When you think about Japan, whisky isn’t usually the first thing to come to mind. But make no mistake—they’re very serious about their whisky. Our Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson had a great fondness for Japan. He spoke with warmth of the friends and colleagues he’d worked with over the years, both through Brown-Forman and as a consultant for Suntory. When asked about his travels over the years collaborating and consulting in the spirit industry, Japan was inevitably the first location to come up.
So how did Japanese whisky come to be? Though it may have started with America, the early Japanese distillers’ road eventually led to Scotland. Up until 1853, Japan had spent the previous two centuries intentionally cut off from the western world. In 1636, the Tokugawa Shogunate ceased all trade with the west—with the exception of a small Dutch outpost on an island in Nagasaki’s harbor.2 For the next 217 years, Japan had very little contact with the world beyond their immediate neighbors. That all changed in 1853, when American Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Tokyo Harbor with four state-of-the-art gunships and essentially demanded that Japan open itself up for trade. Realizing how far they’d fallen behind technologically, Japan launched an ambitious campaign, sending scientists, students and engineers abroad to learn from the west.4
So what does this have to do with whisky? One of the gifts the American Commodore left behind was a 110-gallon barrel of whiskey. Naturally, it was delicious, but the Japanese realized they had no idea how to recreate it.1 In the early 1900s, a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru traveled to Scotland to learn the trade.5 He attended the University of Glasgow in 1918, and eventually managed to find work at a handful of Scottish distilleries. There, he meticulously recorded every aspect of the distilling process. His notes would provide the foundation for Japan’s whisky industry.5
Masataka Taketsuru returned to Japan where he partnered with a pharmaceutical wholesaler and began distilling whiskey. This business would eventually grow into Suntory. In 1934, he went independent and launched his own distillery, which would come to be called Nikka. The ensuing rivalry between the two companies is legendary.5
So what are the characteristics of Japanese whisky? Interestingly, unlike bourbon, Scotch and Irish whiskey, there aren’t any legal requirements in place for the product to be sold as “Japanese whisky.” From Taketsuru’s origins, Japanese whisky has always been heavily influenced by the Scot’s approach. But the Japanese distillers possess a remarkable attention to detail and willingness to tinker—a quality that Lincoln Henderson deeply admired. Unlike Scotch distilleries, who frequently swap bulk unfinished whiskies to help each other round out their desired blending flavor profiles, Japanese distilleries generally produce every type of whisky that they might possibly need either in house or at least under one larger company’s umbrella. It’s a risky approach—especially for smaller distilleries—and a bad year can be devastating, but it allows for a very high level of control and nuance. While there are still some blended varieties, most Japanese whiskies are single malt, with a malted barley mash-base that’s kiln-dried. They do use peat, but not nearly as much as you’ll find in Scotch.6 And in the early 2000s, Japan started beating Scotland at its own game on the award circuit.1
Lincoln was proud to have helped play a roll in the destinies of two nations’ whisk(e)y heritages, and as a life-long malcontent, he found kindred spirits in Japan. While his first love was always bourbon, he had a very big heart.
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