The idea of Japanese whisky might bring to mind Bill Murray’s eye-lined ad from Lost in Translation, and you wouldn’t be far-off. Most seasoned whisky drinkers are familiar with global varietals — from Scotch to bourbon to rye. But Japan’s award-winning take is largely unknown; here’s why you should lift a glass to this unsung hero.
Whisky’s humble roots in the land of the rising sun begin with a tale of entrepreneurial competition. The setting: 19th century Japan, where native companies were producing their own brands of whisky. The players: Shinjiro Torii, whose uncle owned a whisky-distribution company and Matasaka Tajetsuru, a manager schooled in Scotland on whisky distillation techniques.
In 1923, Torii founded his own distillery and baptized it Yamazaki. As the company experienced growing pains, it eventually came to be known as Suntory — the very brand you spotted in Lost in Translation. He hired Tajetsuru, and six years later, they created the first Scotch-style Japanese whisky, White Label.
By 1934, creative differences had driven the two men apart. Taketsuru advocated a peatier, more smoky whisky while Torii espoused a lighter, fruitier variety. In the grand tradition of competition, Taketsuru founded his own company, Nippon-Kaju —later named Nikka — on the northern-most island of Hokkaido, whose climate more closely approximated Scotland. With the Pacific roiling between them, Suntory and Nikka still maintain a fierce rivalry. Despite the market presence of other Japanese whisky companies, these two remain the major players.
Whisky became the Japanese wartime drink of choice during the ’30s and ’40s, and this trend was bolstered over many decades by American servicemen. From the ’50s through to the ’90s, whisky rose to become the hallmark of affluence and was widely sought after. In 1997, the Asian Financial crisis and the younger generation’s focus on shochu (a lighter grain spirit) led to a decreased demand for whisky. While some distillers faded into history, the survivors — including Suntory and Nikka — focused their efforts on single malts, which led to their subsequent revival and the award-winning status they enjoy today.
Now that you’re all caught up on its history, you’re no doubt wondering what the darn thing tastes like. While Japanese whisky is similar to its Scottish counterparts, Japan’s climate and select ingredients indigenous to the island nation result in a whisky that’s familiar, but unique.
Have we whetted your appetite for a stiff glass? Unfortunately, Ontario only offers the Karuzaiwa 8-year-old single malt, available at the LCBO ($60). Considered a starter Japanese whisky, it combines fruity notes with coffee and a slightly smoky aftertaste, and comes to us from the boutique-sized Karuzaiwa distillery , which opened in 1955, at the base of Mount Asama in Northern Honshu.
If you’re itching to try Japanese whisky for yourself, head on over directly to the LCBO website or Master of Malt (masterofmalt.com/whiskies) to order rarer Japanese whisky. We recommend: Suntory’s Hakushu 12-year-old single malt, a light varietal with slight floral notes and pine-line aroma, and Nikka’s Yoichi 10-year-old single malt, which should be available at the LCBO in October. It offers up sweet toffee notes combined with muted dried flowers and a sooty aftertaste — perfect for lovers of a peaty whisky.
Whatever your particular tastes may be, don’t forget what the Japanese are capable of. It might not be the whisky your dad drank, but trust us, it’s good shit.