Say Japanese spirits and most will think of sake. Or Pokémon. But the country’s whisky-makers are being evermore recognised on the international stage, their brews even eclipsing their legendary Scottish counterparts. In 2014, Japan’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 topped the tipple chart of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, named the best whisky in the world, and noted for its “near indescribable genius”. Both Japan’s blends and single malts continue to dominate.
“Japanese whisky has a good balance,” Takayuki Suzuki, cocktail designer at Tokyo’s Park Hotel, tells CNN. “Compared with Scotch whisky, it does not lose the taste and flavour when you mix it with other drinks. It is easy to use as a cocktail base.”
Though the most widely publicised, the 2014 title wasn’t the first taste of success for the Far East whisky industry. Thirteen years earlier, Whisky Magazine named Nikka’s Yoichi whisky ‘Best of the Best’ in an international tasting, and two years later, Suntory’s 30-year-old Hibiki whisky took home the top award from the International Spirits Challenge. The maker collected gongs for more than a decade later at the same competition.
“Three things have a big influence on Japanese whisky,” says Shinji Fukoyo, chief blender of Suntory, who also own the Yamazaki distillery, “water, climate and people.” The water used is of the mineral kind, fresh from a well; the blenders are fastidious in their taste tests; and the climate, hotter in winter and cooler in summer, makes for faster maturation than in Scotland: “Our first whisky wasn’t successful because whisky-making in Japan was so closely inspired by whisky from Scotland,” he tells the Telegraph. But the smoky flavour “didn’t meet the Japanese palate”, and so it was modified.
Water is actually as an integral as the grain to the whisky-making process. “You’re only as good as the water you make whisky with,” says Jeff Arnett, Jack Daniels master distiller, to Esquire. “You can make bad whisky with good water, but you still have to start with good water. An ideal water is cold, mineral rich, and iron-free.” Jack Daniels source theirs from a waterway which flows through local limestone caves.
Around the same time Jack Daniels was founded (1875), whisky distillation was taking off in Japan, but it wasn’t until the early 1920s that is was produced commercially, in Yamazaki—an enterprise that, fittingly, wouldn’t have happened without certain Scottish help.
On 8 January 1920 in a registry office in Scotland, Jessica Roberta Cowan—also known as Rita—married Masataka Taketsuru, a Japanese chemistry student who had arrived in the country two years prior to study whisky-making. He had been a lodger at Rita’s home. Soon, they moved back to Japan where Masataka dreamt of building his own distillery.
Masataka secured work with Suntory, playing a leading role in establishing the nation’s first commercial whisky plant, at Yamazaki. A decade later he established his own legendary distillery, now known as Nikka, at Yoichi, producing his first batch in 1940.
“Rita played a very important role in Masataka’s life work,” Nikka Whisky international sales manager Emiko Kaji tells the BBC. “She provided not only moral support but also financial support when they had a difficult time. She made every effort to adopt herself to the Japanese culture and stay with him all the time, even during the world war… Masa
taka could not have overcome a lot of difficulties without loyal support by Rita.”
The onset of the second world war brought personal troubles, with many locals—and some family members—turning against them. Rita was even accused of being a British spy, but workers at their company defender her staunchly.
The couple stayed put, and time healed.
Following her death in 1961 aged just 63, the main street of Yoichi was named ‘Rita Road’, and when Masataka passed away in 1979, he was laid to rest beside his wife in that small Japanese coastal town in which they shared so much of their lives.
Today they are affectionately referred to as the mother and father of Japanese whisky.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
Whisky A Go-Go:
The Grain at a Glance
Americans and Irish spell it ‘whiskey’; Canadians, as well as Scots and Japanese, drop the ‘e’.
Traditional whisky ingredients include corn, rye, barley and wheat, but it can be made from any grain, including quinoa.
Whisky is clear when it goes into the barrel.
Tennessee whisky is aged in new white oak barrels, and bourbon in charred ones. Scotch makers often re-use these vessels to age their brews.
Ageing must last at least three years for it to be real whisky.
There are more barrels of bourbon than there are people in Kentucky.
Though the birthplace of the legendary drink, Bourbon County, in the state of Kentucky, was ‘dry’ between 1919 and 2014.
Scotland exports more than 30 bottles of whisky per second, on average, bringing in £3.86billion in revenue in 2015.
The word ‘whisky’ was first used in the early 18th century, but the drink had been in production for at least two centuries previously.