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When talking about whisky (or “whiskey” for those in the USA), Scotland is sure to come up in the conversation– but did you know that there is such a thing as Japanese whisky as well?
If you’re craving a rich and complex glass of whisky reminiscent of the highlands, you no longer have to fly to the UK to get a sip of the exclusive drink. Not many people know about it, but there are actually whisky experts nurturing a niche market for local-made whisky in Japan!
Read on to learn more about the story of how Scottish whisky took up new roots in Japan and how you can some Japanese whisky to try for yourself.
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Alcohol in Japan
Thinking about alcohol in Japan usually brings to mind sake– the traditional Japanese rice wine. You may also think about beer, which is the number one alcoholic beverage consumed in Japan. The country even has a budding wine industry and there are Japanese wines available on the market.
Related: Japanese Cuisine
Despite the fact that there is a stereotype that Japanese people have a low tolerance for alcohol (as up to 45% of the Japanese population have ALDH2 – an inactive enzyme making it harder for the body to convert ethanol), Japan is a country that undeniably loves and appreciates good alcohol.
The national beverage of Japan is rice wine, it is legal to drink in public spaces, and karaoke bars often come with nomihoudai (an all-you-can-drink alcohol “buffet”)– so it only makes sense that when Japan caught a whiff of good whisky, it wasn’t long before the spirit began to gain a Japanese following.
How Scottish whisky came to Japan
The 19th century was a period of astounding change in Japan and as the country began to open up to the rest of the world, there was a great mixing of ideas and technology across borders. Although far apart geographically, the 19th and 20th centuries saw Japan building bonds with Scotland.
As explorers and entrepreneurs made the long trip back and forth between Scotland and Japan, they brought with them both technology and tastes from home. And in the late 1800s, whisky– the national drink of Scotland– first began to appear in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Competing with sake, beer, and local preferences, it took a while for whisky to take off so far from its highland home. It wasn’t until 1923 that the first commercial whisky distillery was opened in Japan by Suntory, not far outside of Kyoto.
While many traits and brewing methods were no doubt inspired by whisky production in the alcohol’s home country, Japanese distillers have added their own unique touch to their whisky. Distillery methods remain a closely guarded secret, but it is believed that one reason that whisky made in Japan has such a pure and refined taste is the high quality of local Japanese water used by brewers.
Where can I try Japanese whisky today?
The first whisky distillery in Japan– the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery – can be visited at its original location between Kyoto and Osaka, where visitors can enjoy the free museum or a paid guided tour as well as whisky tastings and shopping at the on-site store. For those who can’t make the trip in person, you can still enjoy the free online Yamazaki Distillery tour.
Although the Yamazaki Distillery was the first of its kind in Japan, several other whisky distilleries have opened up for whisky lovers around the country. Closer to Tokyo is the Hakushu Distillery (also owned by Suntory) and the Fuji Gotemba Distillery – currently the largest distillery in the world. The southern city Kagoshima has the Mars Tsunuki Distillery and even the far north has the Yoichi Distillery, not too far from Sapporo.
For those living abroad– don’t fear! Authentic Japanese whisky can be purchased and shipped internationally from Japanese companies such as Dekanta or Kabukiwhisky. However, you may want to save your whisky the trip (and perhaps save money on import fees as well) by taking the trip to Japan yourself!
Is Japanese whisky better than Scotch whisky?
Although whisky is still not consumed on the same level as beer or sake in Japan, Japanese whisky has been growing in popularity over the years both at home and abroad. International interest in Japanese whisky has grown exponentially thanks to several recent show-stopping whiskies produced on Japanese soil.
Japan has won several prestigious whisky awards and often takes several top places at the yearly World Whiskies Awards. In both 2018 and 2020, the Suntory whisky Hakushu 25 Year Old stole the top place as the world’s best single malt. The Hibiki 21 Year Old, also by Suntory, has become the most awarded whisky in Japan.
Some claim that Japanese whisky has even come so far that it has surpassed the Scottish whisky that first inspired it– but don’t tell that to the Scots!
While the debate about who has the best whisky is a heated one, it is undeniable that Japan was inspired by Scottish whisky and gave their local brews a uniquely Japanese twist that is worth experiencing. On your next trip to Japan, be sure to grab a taste of authentic Japanese whisky to taste the smooth and complex notes of history for yourself!
Have you tasted Japanese whisky? If so– what did you think? And if not– would you give it a try if you had the chance?
Let us know in the comments below!