Japanese whiskey has become so popular that many distilleries in Japan have started to produce non-aged whiskey instead of aged whiskey to meet demands. Whiskey from Japan uses pure, soft water and Mizunara (Japanese oak) barrels to give the spirit a unique taste. Whiskeys from Japan have won many international awards.

Japanese whiskey was first sold in the United States in the late 1980s, but most people weren't aware that whiskey was made in Japan until the Suntory brand was mentioned in the 2003 movie "Lost in Translation."

Whiskey made in Japan has the taste and aroma of Scotch, and it’s normally expensive, like fine Scotch, but there are affordable brands available. The word whiskey is often spelled without the “e” when referencing the Japanese version of the spirit.

Whiskeys from Japan have won many international awards. Yoichi whiskey was named “Best of the Best” by Whiskey magazine in 2002, and Hibiki from Suntory won first place at International Spirits Challenge from 2003 to 2014.

If you’re new to drinking whiskeys made in Japan, here are five things you should know before buying your first bottle.

The Distilling Process Focuses On Water, Wood, and Weather

woodford reserve distillery

Japanese whiskey is aged in mizunara (Japanese oak) barrels. This wood is more porous than European or American oak. Mizunara trees need to be 200 years before the wood can be used to make a barrel.

Most Mizunara trees are somewhat crooked, so it’s hard to cut planks straight enough for a barrel. The trees are found in one forest in Hokkaido, the second largest island in Japan.

Suntory opened its first distillery in 1924, on the spot where the famous Taian teahouse was built in the late 1500s. The water in the vicinity of this distillery is soft and lacks minerals. The dearth of minerals allows the whiskey to achieve a full, unencumbered flavor.

Japanese distilleries build their facilities close to springs and other water sources, including mountain reserves so that they can use the purest water possible for more refined whiskey.

The water and ice used to make highballs with whiskey are contemplated quite carefully in Japan. The highball is made with one part whiskey to every three parts soda or water. The best ice is made with low-oxygen, artisanal ice hand-chipped.

Scottish whiskey is made in two seasons – wet and warm (spring/summer) and cold and wet (fall/winter) and the results are excellent. Japan, however, has four separate seasons which makes a more nuanced whiskey. When the humid summer weather expands the oak barrels, the liquid is soaked into the wood and develops its flavor.

Barrels start contracting in the fall and “sleep” during the winter to lock in the character and flavor. In the spring, cherry blossoms and other flowers bloom and add a bit of character to the whiskey, and fall leaves affect the whiskey’s aroma and character as well.

Sip your NAS whiskey with soda water and aged whiskey with mineral water. Drink your whiskey “twice up’ with mineral water or over ice with two parts water to one part whiskey (a “mizuwari”). A highball is the sparkling adaptation of the Mizuwari.

The Japanese distill their whiskeys in preparation for ice and added water. When you add H2O to whiskey, the interaction between the liquids sets off a pleasing aroma (which differs depending on the whiskey you drink).

Yamazaki

Suntory

Nikkia Whiskey

Nikka​

Mars Shinshu

Mars

Chichibu

Chichibu

Kirin whiskey

Kirin

Japanese Whiskey is in High Demand and Short Supply.

Suppliers for several Japanese whiskeys are so overwhelmed with orders, they can’t produce the spirit fast enough. Older varieties of whiskey are especially coveted, and one Japanese CEO said that it might take as many as ten years to satisfy the demand for the spirit.

Although Japanese whiskeys account for only five percent of worldwide sales, the demand is so great that representatives for Suntory have announced that the company is temporarily discontinuing production on some whiskeys until further notice as of May 2018.

If you have bottles of Suntory or any other Japanese brand, keep it in a safe place (or sell it if you want to make a tidy profit).

Other whiskey distilleries in Japan have experienced increased interest, and their production facilities can’t keep up with orders, either. You’ll notice fewer bottles available and prices going up, with some sought-after vintages selling for as much as a few thousand dollars on liquor websites.

Nikka discontinued its age statement bottling in 2015 due to low supplies and replaced it with no age statement (NAS) bottlings. Whiskey distilleries in Japan are now becoming more experimental due to the increase in NAS production, and many of them have introduced peating to their whiskeys.

BevMo and other U.S. stores still sell affordable whiskey from Japan. Hibiki Harmony, Iwai and Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 86 are just a few of the whiskeys from Japan available for under $100 at popular retail and online stores.
Some Vintage Japanese Whiskeys Sell for High Prices at Auction.

Rare Japanese whiskey vintages are so popular that connoisseurs have paid as much as six figures for a single bottle at auction. A bottle of 50-year old Yamazaki whiskey was sold for $343,000 in August 2018.

The 2005 and 2011 editions of Yamazaki 50-Year-Old Whiskey also attracted high winning bids. In 2016, the 2005 edition sold for $129,000, and in January 2018, the 2011 edition sold for around $300,000.

In May 2018, a bottle of Karuizawa (“The Dragon”) from 1960 fetched $312,710 at auction. Hanyu’s 54 Bottle Series sold for $485,472. The monochrome and color Joker bottles had been prized by collectors in Asia and Europe for years.




 

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