We may associate whisky with Scottish distilleries but the nuances of Japanese whisky are not to be underestimated. There are many reasons why the single malt from Japan should be a welcome addition to your drinks cabinet.
Whisky has age and pedigree. European monks migrating to Scotland and Ireland over 1,000 years ago brought distilling skills with them. Over time, brands developed and both Scotland and Ireland still enjoy a coveted reputation for the best whiskies.
Over the pond, the Americans were also beginning to produce their version of whiskey. BY 1904, for example, Jack Daniels Old No.7 had earned a gold medal at the World’s Fair.
Jack Daniel’s is a whiskey enjoyed by many, along with Scottish and Irish whiskies. Unlike other tipples, however, whisky is associated with certain geographical locations. But unless you are serious whisky connoisseur, you may not have realised that Japanese whiskies are also among some of the finest in the world.
Making a name for itself – Japanese Whisky
Like a stone thrown into a pond, the murmurings around whiskey from the Far East have been growing in ever-increasing circles. Production started in 1854 but it is only in modern times that Japanes whisky has been taken seriously and considered worthy to stand alongside its Scottish and Irish cousins.
The production of whiskey in the Far East is tied up in politics and trade. In the mid-19th Century, Japan wasn’t too keen on opening itself up to the rest of the world. Other economies saw this isolationist policy as holding back valuable trade routes and so back in 1854, American Commodore Matthew Perry was sent to reverse this 220-year-old Japanese policy.
He was successful and imports flooded into the country from the west. These include beer, wine and spirits. It was the whisky that spoke the language of the Japanese people the most, however. But it was in short supply and expensive too.
So what do you think a forward-thinking people did? They start to make their own. These were the first tentative steps into Japanese whisky distilling.
With spicy notes, the first bottles were not, according to whisky standards, anything marvellous. The Japanese knew this and so in 1918, they sent a chemistry student to the wilds of the Highlands to learn the craft.
But accommodation and training costs were extortionate. Rather than allowing this to be a barrier, chemistry student Masataka Taketsuru set about to find an apprenticeship. He did, eventually, and with experience at several distilleries and recording every single detail in his journal, he learnt the art of distilling excellent whiskey.
The story continues to develop to the point that we are at today – excellent Japanese whiskies that are full of flavour and spice, a spirit to be savoured with every drop.
The best Japanese whiskies
There are several excellent Japanese whiskies which, until 10 or 20 years ago, would have been the preserve of a small group of whisky aficionados. Today, Japanese whiskies enjoy a more mainstream attraction.
Okayama Japanese Single Malt Whisky
Producing sake and beer, this is the only whisky to be produced by this distillery. Released to celebrate their centenary, a significant event in any brand’s history, this is a delightful malt with fruity notes that is perfect for both established and new whisky drinkers.
Delicate and refreshing, the subtle notes of exotic fruits such as mango coconut combine seamlessly with white pepper and notes of menthol. A young whisky – it is matured for three years in brandy barrels – the malt is from Japan and Germany.
This straw coloured single malt is not the cheapest at just over £130 a bottle but it will a welcome go-to when you fancy something a little different on an autumn or a chilly winter’s evening.
Togouchi Premium Blended Japanese Whisky
Also in our range is a blended whisky made from Scottish malt and Canadian grain.
Whisky connoisseurs will know that what sets one whisky apart from another is not just the delicate harmony of ingredients and flavours but how the whisky is matured.
Produced by Chugoku Jozo, this whisky is matured in sherry casks and brandy barrels in a disused large, railway tunnel in the town of Togouchi, after which it is named.
The mix of barrels in itself is unusual because not every bottle produced from the same batch will carry the same flavours. Unusual, this premium blended whisky is certainly worthy of a spot on your shopping list.
From the Barrel, Nikka Whisky
At the lower end of the price scale is this more-than-adequate offering. As Japanese whiskies have become more mainstream, supermarkets and larger drinks stores are beginning to stock a limited range.
At a reasonable price tag, you can’t blame them for stocking this standard-bearer, with its subtle flavoured notes. It still has the complexities you would expect from a whisky but without the pomp.
Find it in larger supermarkets as well as online.
The Chita, Suntory Whisky
Doubling in price point is this well-loved and well-known Japanese whisky brand. With several distilleries ditted across the far reaches of China, there are more complex whiskies to be had from this distillery.
But, if you are looking for fruity notes with a welcome hint of sweetness, you won’t go far wrong. It has a fruity spirit, with bananas at its base and a thin but intense sweetness to every drop.
Hakushu 12-Year-Old Single Malt, Suntory Whisky
Topping in at three figures like Okayama’s single malt, it is the light and refined herbal notes that your notice with this tipple.
Coolness gives way to the warmth traditionally associated with whisky without ditching the lemon and mint flavours you’ll find mingling on the palate.
It’s a full-bodied little number that is surprisingly creamy too. Best served neat, this is available from higher-end supermarkets and some online retailers.
Is Japanese whisky worth the money?