While shorter than the history of sake, the history of whisky in Japan is no less rich and intriguing. Legend has it that whisky was truly introduced first to Japan in 1853, in the form of 110 gallons of whisky brought by Commodore Perry when he forced Japan to open to international trade. Brought as gifts to the Emperor and other dignitaries, this whisky would become the seed from which the Japanese whisky industry would grow.
Suntory and Nikka Whisky
Depending on which company profile you are reading, the modern era of Japanese whisky can be attributed to one of two individuals, though both are noteworthy. The first, Torii Shinjiro, is the man who would go on to found the Suntory brand. The other, Taketsuru Masataka, became the founder of the Nikka brand.
Torii Shinjiro was a young man who worked in a pharmaceutical company which happened to sell imported liquor. With a keen mind for business and a sharp palette, he could tell that port wine and whisky were products that would appeal to Japanese taste. He founded the Kotobukiya company (later becoming Suntory), and opened the first whisky distillery in 1924.
Taketsuru Masataka, on the other hand, was a technical master of whisky. Born into a family of sake brewers, Masataka took it into his own hands to go to Scotland in 1918 and enroll in university to study chemistry, and later apprenticed at three different whisky distilleries. While there, he took extremely detailed notes (which have since been enshrined in a museum), and married his wife, Rita. Together, the two of them returned to Japan. While initially having no luck putting his newfound skills to use, this changed in 1923 when he was hired by Torii to found the Yamazaki distillery. Their partnership lasted until 1934, when Masataka departed to form his own company, Nikka Whisky.
Japanese Whisky on the Global Stage
Now, all this is a lot of history, but what about the whisky? For many years, Japanese whisky was primarily a domestic product that was rarely exported. However, in the early 2000s, Japanese whisky began to earn international recognition, with awards going to Nikka’s 10 Year Aged Yoichi, and in 2003, Suntory’s 12 year Yamazaki. Since then, both companies have been competing at the highest level for awards and recognition as some of the best whisky in the world.
All of this is not to say that they are the only names in Japanese whisky. Like the emerging craft beer scene in Japan, craft whiskies are starting to make waves in Japan as well. One distillery, Chichibu from Saitama, was founded in 2008 by Akuto Ichiro, the grandson of the founder of the Hanyu distillery. Since they’ve been producing whisky, Chichibu has won five consecutive “World’s Best” awards. Another craft distiller, Akkeshi Distillery, started operations in 2016 and released their first whisky in 2018. Located in the far north of Japan in Akkeshi, Hokkaido, they are aiming to reproduce the conditions of Islay Scotch, but using only products from Hokkaido.
While the craft whisky industry is still small in Japan, the fact that new distilleries are opening brings hope that a new generation of people around the world will discover these Japanese whisky gems.
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!