It’s no secret that Japanese whisky has taken the world by storm, regularly fetching high prices at auctions and earning award after award, captivating the hearts and bank accounts of whisky lovers from all walks of life. But this wasn’t always the case.
There was a time not so long ago when Japanese whisky was looked down on as inferior to other whisky varieties like scotch and bourbon. So, what changed? The answers can be found in Brian Ashcraft’s brilliant Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide To The World’s Most Desirable Spirit.
Packed full of insight and history, this is a must-read book for anyone with even a passing interest in whisky and Japanese culture.
Telling the story of Japanese whisky
The book opens with a fascinating introduction to the beginning of whisky’s journey in Japan. Brought over from America in 1853, it didn’t take long for the Japanese to become enamored with the elixir known as aqua-vitae. But it wasn’t until a young Japanese chemist called Masataka Taketsuru visited Scotland in 1918 that the true story of Japanese whisky began.
After returning to Japan, Taketsuru brought his insight to the spirits heavyweight Suntory and eventually set off on his own to form the rival Nikka. It was this kind of competitive attitude that formed the modern-day whisky industry in Japan, with distillers choosing to forge their own paths, rather than working together like distilleries in Scotland.
While this mentality is changing as new whisky brands emerge in Japan, it’s intriguing to discover the characteristics of Japanese whisky and how it differs from other varieties.
Defining Japanese whisky
Ashcraft goes into detail about the production methods that the Japanese use for their whisky and what sets it apart. For example, there are no specific regulations with Japanese whisky. As the chief blender of Suntory, Shinji Fukuyo puts it “there is no legal definition of Japanese whisky, because when asked what it was, it would be easy to explain. However, if that definition became so strictly defined, like with scotch, then we’d lose the flexibility we have.”
Here is a list of guidelines to help define what Japan’s version of whisky is:
- There are no minimum age requirements
- It doesn’t have to be aged in any specific barrels
- It doesn’t have to be bottled at a specific ABV, as alcohol bottled at 37% or 39% can still be defined as whisky
- Each distillery has a unique production method e.g. Kirin uses a beer still for its whisky
The book also features an interesting analysis on the materials that Japanese distillers use and one of the most striking is mizunara wood for barrels. Mizunara is Japanese oak and imparts unique flavours when whisky is aged within it.
“According to joint research between Suntory and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, 27-year old whisky aged in mizunara casks has a slightly different flavour profile from whisky aged in American oak. Japanese oak-aged whisky has fewer cereal, grassy and fresh fruit notes but is slightly feinter and has slightly more sulfury aromas that are described as a struck match. This is perhaps explains why whisky aged in mizunara is compared to the scents found in a temple or shrine, such as incense or burning candles.” – Brian Ashcraft
Tasting notes that read like poetry
Throughout the book, there are a series of tasting notes dedicated to whisky from different Japanese distilleries, ranging from Suntory to Venture. All of the tasting notes are detailed and beautifully written, coming across with the elegance of poetry. There’s a dream-like quality to Japanese whisky and that is hammered home by whisky writing savant Yuji Kawasaki.
Combine those reviews with a detailed tour of all the major distilleries and you’ll be eager to go on a whisky tour of Japan. It’s the details that make the book so engrossing and it’s the details that will deepen your appreciation for Japanese whisky, make you want to pour yourself a glass and say kanpai to your friends.
Ashcraft has also written a great book on the history of irezumi/Japanese tattoos. Be sure to check out Yamato Magazine’s review to learn more!