The Whiskies of Japan

20 Jan 2012

Few products are more closely associated with the idea of terroir than the whiskies of Scotland. Highland, Lowland, Islands, Campbeltown, and Speyside–all Scotch regions where the variations in soil, water, rainfall, barley, methods of fermentation, distilling, aging, and barrel types depend on centuries of deeply regional traditions. The terroir of each region is said by experts to create a unique character in the whisky.

So when the Japanese began to manufacture their own whiskies, starting in 1870 at the outset of the Meiji era (1868-1912), the endeavor might easily have been viewed as hubristic. Rather than a boast, however, the decision to try to create whisky like that of Scotland was part of a general, national decision to pay homage to the West.

Emperor Meiji, guided by his advisors, chose to emulate Prussian methodology. At its peak, Prussia was perfecting science: The documentation of observed events that could be duplicated reliably and validly in various settings. Before this modernization of methods, studies and results depended more heavily on the scientist and the specific laboratory. It was, one could say, a time when terroir was more prevalent in research.

The Meiji era in Japan ushered in modern teaching methods, research, and the development of independent academies and institutions. As a result, using science, Japan discovered how to make delicious, first-rate whisky that ultimately, over many decades of work, tastes as good as the finest products from Scotland.

Ironically, whisky, a product long held to be synonymous with terroir and regional character, can now be seen, through Japanese innovation, as one of the world’s first global products. By applying Western methodology to their regions, the early whisky makers of Japan turned the idea of terroir on its head. Inspired, too, by a Shinto outlook of striving towards perfection, early manufacturers in Japan believed they could master the task. Japanese whisky is now a symbol of the power of science and religion to transform agriculture and diminish the critical, historical importance and necessity of geographical influences.

Unlike Scotland, where specific regions create the character of each whisky, products from Japan are spread throughout the country: The prefectures of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyoto, Nagano, Saitama, Shizuoka, and Yamanashi. Not one of these areas has specific climatological conditions, water variations, or agricultural methodology that inform the whisky in ways comparable to the regional influences seen in Scotland. The distillery owners do not rely upon location to produce their whiskies.

Certainly, the Japanese quest for purity in water has bearing on the finesse of the whiskies produced there, and on why the distilleries are in their locations, but this is not the deciding factor in development. The earliest and most successful proponents of the mission to create whisky in Japan understood, instead, that learning methodology of manufacture in Scotland was key.
Matsataka Taketsuru, with a background in sake production, went to Scotland in 1918, where he enrolled in the University of Glasgow to study how to make whisky. He went on to found the Nikka distillery in 1934 in Yoichi in the prefecture of Hokkaido.

Just over a decade earlier, in 1923, Shinjiro Torii established the Kotobukiya distillery in Yamazaki in the prefecture of Kyoto. This distillery evolved to become Suntory (in 1963), which is the best known whisky of Japan. Keizo Saji, Torii’s second son (adopted by his wife’s relatives), took over the business and is credited with being one of the pioneers of perfecting the single malt whisky of Japan.

These days approximately 10 large whisky distilleries operate at full tilt in Japan. These include popular brands beginning to become widely known in the West, such as The Yamazaki and Hibiki, but smaller distilleries can be readily found.

Japanese whiskies, as is true with their Scotch progenitors, are blended or single malt and then aged in oak barrels. Aging over decades is the norm with a three-year minimum required for a product to be released for public consumption. One chief difference between whisky distilled in Japan as compared to Scotland is the use of Mizunara or Japanese oak. Whether this imbues the whisky with distinctive or Japanese elements is unknown, but it is unlikely since, in blind tastings, experts are hard pressed to identify the origin of the drinks.

Before the introduction of whisky to Japan, the drink of choice was sake, which is low in alcohol (about 14-18%), compared to whisky (about 43%), and historically associated with Shinto ceremonies and rites of passage, such as marriage. Sake has become “old school” in Japan these days with the younger generations besotted instead with whisky and shochu (higher in alcohol than sake, about 21-26%, but still well below the alcohol content of whisky).

In high end hotels in Tokyo and ryokans (country inns), for example, prestige is established and evident in Japanese whisky programs that celebrate the country’s success at creating a culture based on both confidence and science.
Among the most in depth whisky programs to be found in Japan, there is The New York Grill at Park Hyatt in Tokyo, for example, where over 15 rare Japanese whiskies are on offer. These range from the relatively humble 15 year Yoichi to the rather astonishing 35 year old Taketsuru.

The range of flavor notes in all the whiskies is deeply subtle, distinctive, and certainly far more than mere emulation of the whiskies of Scotland. The best of these are dark in color, very rich in the mouth, and able to convey to the drinker a long finish that evokes that mysterious element central to Japanese gastronomy: Umami. Meaning that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that the first flavor tasted is followed by a series of other flavors.

The first time I ever tasted Japanese whisky, I was at a small Japanese inn, The Kayotei, deep in the mountains, above the hot springs village of Yamanaka, next to a long precipitous ravine made famous through the wanderings of the seventeenth century poet Matsuo Basho.

The whisky came from the Nikka brewery and it was a 17 year old, served with a splash of water. Japan in a glass, but it evoked the terroir of a Highland whisky from Scotland: Long, bitter, and very rich. It was impossible to taste a difference.

With the threat of globalization encroaching on tradition, it is important to distinguish between the dilution of originality and creativity. In Japan, by way of science and Shintoism’s belief in the ability to perfect, the whisky shows us how refinement is possible, and its effect on terroir. The whisky exemplifies Japan’s homage to the West.

Article first published in Slow magazine, 52.

Photo: N. Nakamoto

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