Japan - A country rich in history

Japan is relatively ‘new’ to Whisky Production when compared with the traditional whisky producing countries of Scotland, Ireland and the USA, however, by ‘new’, we mean over 95 years ago since the first single malt distillery was founded at Yamazaki near Osaka in 1923.

1923

The founder of the Yamazaki Distillery (Shinjiro Torri) sent an employee to Scotland after the end of the First World War, with a mission to learn and gain as much information as possible regarding the production practices and the overall history of Scottish whisky. After a few years and numerous tours of distilleries, the employee returned to Japan and put his newfound knowledge and experiences into practice. Yamazaki was born!

1970’s > 1980s

It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that the Japanese whisky industry really took off,. Sales of imported whisky were increasing two-fold. New distilleries were built and some Sake distilleries (Japanese Rice Wine) were converted to the production of whisky, seeing this as a new way of making alternative and additional income.

However, nearing the end of the 1980s, the whisky industry in Japan was struggling and a number of distilleries were unfortunately forced to close their doors because of a slump in sales due to the ever increasing availability of cheaper imported whiskies from rivaling countries, such as Scotland, Ireland and the USA. Additionally, an unwanted rise in Japanese alcohol taxes didn’t offer any help and this therefore made Japanese whisky increasingly more expensive in comparison to their overseas competitors.

1980s > Present Day

Fast forward to today and the demand for Japanese whisky has never been higher. The opportunity for growth in this market is once again sky high. Why is that, I hear you ask? It’s mainly thanks to increased exports to most areas across the globe and the winning of major World Whisky Awards. This in turn means that the reputation of Japanese whisky has grown tremendously and an increased amount of people are now drinking and more importantly, collecting it than ever before.

 

Distilleries in Japan

There are currently just 8 active distilleries in Japan, the majority of which produce both single malt and blended whiskies.

Each distillery has its own style and method for distilling and maturing whisky, however, most follow the tried and tested traditions of the Scottish distillers.

Four of the eight Japanese distillers can be found in the centre of the mainland (not too far from Tokyo) with two further to the South-West (including the most-famous ‘Yamazaki’), one to the far North of the mainland, and with one all on its own situated in the Northern island of Hokkaido.

 

YamazakiYamazaki

Japan’s oldest distillery and still, by far, the top selling and most recognisable single malt whisky produced in the country. A rare bottle of 50-year-old Japanese Yamazaki whiskey recently sold (August 2018) for £275,000 at an auction in Hong Kong, becoming the single most expensive bottle of Japanese whisky ever.

How to pronouce Yamazaki: yama-zakee

Location: Between Osaka/Kyoto on the main island of Honshū

Owned by: Suntory

Founded: 1923

Interesting fact: Seven thousand bottles of unblended malt whisky are on display in its “Whisky Library”.

Yamazaki Distillery website >

 

HakushuHakushu

At the foot of Mt. Kaikomagatake in the Southern Alps, Hakushu is Suntory’s second malt distillery, they produce different whiskies to those found at Yamazaki.

How to pronouce Hakushu: ha-koo-shoo

Location: in Yamanashi Prefecture on the main island of Honshū

Owned by: Suntory

Founded: 1973

Interesting fact: The Hakushu Distillery takes its water from the Ojira River, which is considered to be one of the top 100 exceptional water resources of Japan.

Hakushu Distillery website >

 

YoichiYoichi

Nikka’s first distillery, based in the northern island of Hokkaido, they produce malts that are rich and heavy.

How to pronouce Yoichi: yo-ee-chee

Location: On the northern island of Hokkaidō.

Owned by: Nikka

Founded: 1934

Interesting fact: The Yoichi Whisky Distillery is located west of Sapporo (the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island), surrounded by mountains on three sides with the coast on the other.

Yoichi Distillery website >

 

Miyagikyo Miyagikyo (formerly Sendai)

How to pronouce Miyagikyo: mee-yag-ee-kyo

Location: In the north of the main island, near the city of Sendai

Owned by: Nikka

Founded: 1969

Interesting fact: The location for the distillery was chosen because of its clean air and level of humidity. The current capacity is over 2 million litres per year!

Miyagikyo Distillery website >

 

Fuji GotembaFuji Gotemba

Whisky from this distiller is sold under two names, Fuji-Gotemba & Fuji Sanroku (which means ‘at the feet of Fuji’ in Japanese).

How to pronouce Fuji Gotemba: foo-ji got-emba

Location: at the foot of Mount Fuji in Shizuoka

Owned by: Kirin

Founded: 1972

Interesting fact: Gotemba was selected as the site for the distillery because it was felt to have the climate most similar to Scotland.

Fuji Gotemba Distillery website >

 

ChichibuChichibu

How to pronouce Chichibu: chit-chiboo

Location: Near Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture.

Owned by: Venture whisky

Founded: 2004

Interesting fact: This is the newest distillery in Japan.

Chichibu Distillery website >

 

ShinshuShinshu

Shinshu Distillery is one of the highest altitude whisky distilleries currently in production in the World, by far the highest in Japan.

How to pronouce Shinshu: shin-shu

Location: in Nagano Prefecture on the main island of Honshū

Owned by: Hombo

Founded: 1985

Interesting fact: After opening, the distillery was only in production during the winter months, up until 1992. It halted its Whisky production in 1992 until 2012.

Shinshu Distillery website >

 

White OakWhite Oak (previously Eigashima)

The distillery was actually founded by Eigashima Shuzo in 1888, but it’s purpose was to produce sake and shochu. Overlooking the picturesque Seto Inland Sea, the only distillery in Japan to situated by the coast.

How to pronouce Eigashima: ee-yagash-eema

Location: in Hyogo on the main island of Honshū

Owned by: Eigashima Shuzou

Founded: 1984

Interesting fact: The location has very intense climatic conditions, causing them to lose generous amounts every year during maturation.

 

If you wish to find out more about the fascinating culture of Japanese Whisky, try our friends at Whiskyforeveryone, Master of Malt, The Whisky Exchange and Whisky Shop.