On the Trail

Rummaging for Whisky in Japan

David Driscoll

There was a time not so long ago (let's say 2013) when many of our customers didn't even know Japan made single malt whisky—that the tradition had begun in the island country almost 100 years ago when a man named Masataka Taketsuru returned home after traveling abroad in Scotland, prepared to impart his newly-found distillation knowledge on his homeland. Masataka would help build Japan's first whisky distillery—Yamazaki—but later would depart the company (the one that would eventually become Suntory) to start his own brand: Nikka. Today the two rivals are like Coke and Pepsi, battling for the hearts of minds of Japan's finicky whisky drinkers. Whereas a few years ago we were still trying to explain to our customers why they should give Japanese whisky a try—telling them of the supremely-delicate flavor profiles and incredible craftsmanship—today we're struggling to clarify why they can no longer find any. In the span of about twelve months Japanese whisky has gone from something of an anomaly to something you should probably hoard in case quantities. I spent part of that time traveling through Japan trying to understand why this has become the case.

The first thing you have to understand is that Japan's whisky heritage stems directly from Scotland's. Masataka Taketsuru's training was done at the Longmorn and Hazelburn distilleries respectively, so he brought back an understanding of whisky production based on malted barley. For that reason most of Japan's coveted single malt expressions would pass for Scotch in a blind tasting. Visiting Nikka's Miyagikyo distillery near Sendai—a few hours north of Tokyo—we were treated to a tour of the facilities. From top to bottom, from the peating of the barley to the filling of the barrels, the production is identical to Scottish single malt whisky—it's just that it's happening on the other side of the world. 

Obviously there are local factors that play a role in the delicacy of Japanese whisky's flavor. Water is one of them. When Taketsuru originally founded the Miyagikyo distillery he chose the location based on its proximity to nearby mountain streams. The water here is so pure and so clean that you can drink it straight from the source—no bacteria or other germs to worry about when doing so. I didn't have any stomach ailments at least and I probably drank more than a few handfuls. Water makes a big difference in Japanese products like sake, where regional producers differentiate between various sources of steams and springs. It only makes sense the water would add that same level of delicacy to the whisky as well.

Personally, what impressed me the most about my experience in Japan was the reverence and the ceremony that surrounded the whisky. Japanese single malt is an art and a craft that is treated with a certain amount of respect and concentration, and the presentation of that craft also demands the same type of observance. I ordered a highball (a combination of whisky, soda water, and ice) on about four different occasions and each time the creation of that cocktail was given the utmost of care. It's easy to get swept away in that romance—the same type of astute attention to detail that has me watching the food documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi on repeat. The more we learn about Japan's whisky treasures, the more we're blown away by what they've been able to achieve. Like most good things, however, there's a finite amount available—hence our current dilemma. There's more interest in Japanese whisky than ever before, and more drinkers are heading east in search of that beautiful dream, but unfortunately getting your hands on it has never been more difficult.

-David Driscoll