Japanese whisky

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Japanese whisky
Vintage Suntory Tasting.jpg
A lineup of Suntory whisky bottles
Country of originJapan
Introducedc. 1870 / 1924
Related productsScotch whisky

Japanese whisky is a style of whisky developed and produced in Japan. Whisky production in Japan began around 1870, but the first commercial production was in 1924 upon the opening of the country's first distillery, Yamazaki. Broadly speaking, the style of Japanese whisky is more similar to that of Scotch whisky than other major styles of whisky.

There are several companies producing whisky in Japan, but the two best-known and most widely available are Suntory and Nikka. Both of these produce blended as well as single malt whiskies and blended malt whiskies, with their main blended whiskies being Suntory kakubin (角瓶, square bottle), and Black Nikka Clear. There are also many special bottlings and limited editions.


The production of Japanese whisky began as a conscious effort to recreate the style of Scotch whisky. Pioneers like Taketsuru carefully studied the process of making Scotch whisky, and went to great lengths in an attempt to recreate that process in Japan. The location of Yoichi in Hokkaidō was chosen particularly for its terrain and climate, which were in many ways reminiscent of Scotland (although financial constraints resulted in the first distillery actually being built in the more convenient location of Yamazaki on the main island).

By 2024, products labeled as "Japanese whisky" will conform to new regulations. Japanese whisky must be fermented, distilled, and aged, and bottled in Japan, use some portion of malted grain in its mash, and use water sourced from Japan.[1]

One facet of the style of Japanese whisky comes from the way in which blended whisky is produced, and the differing nature of the industry in Japan. Despite the recent rise of interest in single malt whiskies, the vast majority of whisky sold in the world is still blended. In Scotland, while a particular brand of blended whisky may be owned by a company that also owns one or more distilleries, it is common for blended whisky bottlers to trade single malt whiskies. The components of a blend may involve malt whisky from a number of distilleries, which may be owned by different companies. In Japan, however, the industry is vertically integrated, meaning whisky companies own both the distilleries and the brands of blended whiskies, and do not trade with their competitors. So a blended whisky in Japan will generally only contain malt whisky from the distilleries owned by that same company.


Two of the most influential figures in the history of Japanese whisky are Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. Torii was a pharmaceutical wholesaler and the founder of Kotobukiya (later to become Suntory). He started importing western liquor and he later created a brand called "Akadama Port Wine", based on a Portuguese wine which made him a successful merchant. However, he was not satisfied with this success and so he embarked on a new venture which was to become his life's work: making Japanese whisky for Japanese people. Despite the strong opposition from the company's executives, Torii decided to build the first Japanese whisky distillery in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto, an area so famous for its excellent water that the legendary tea master Sen no Rikyū built his tearoom there.

Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru as a distillery executive. Taketsuru had studied the art of distilling in Scotland, and brought this knowledge back to Japan in the early 1920s. While working for Kotobukiya he played a key part in helping Torii establish the Yamazaki Distillery. In 1934 he left Kotobukiya to form his own company—Dainipponkaju—which would later change its name to Nikka. In this new venture he established the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaidō.

The first westerners to taste Japanese whisky were soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force Siberia who took shore leave in Hakodate in September 1918. A brand called Queen George, described by one American as a "Scotch whisky made in Japan", was widely available. Exactly what it was is unknown, but it was quite potent and probably quite unlike Scotch whisky.[2]

By the 2020s, Japanese distilleries were importing spirits for use in blends. The Japanese government passed legislation in 2021 legally defining "Japanese whisky", with implementation by 2024.[1]


Nikka Yoichi single malt woody & vanillic

Before 2000, the market for Japanese whiskies was almost entirely domestic, though this changed in 2001 when Nikka's 10-year Yoichi single malt won "Best of the Best" at Whisky Magazine's awards.[3]

In the blind tasting organized by Whisky Magazine in 2003, the results of which are published in WM #30, the winners of the category "Japanese Whiskies" were:

  1. Hibiki 21 YO 43% (blend)
  2. Nikka Yoichi 10 YO SC 59.9%
  3. Yamazaki Bourbon Cask 1991 60%
  4. Karuizawa 17 YO 40% (pure malt)

In the main ranking (covering all categories of whisky) Hibiki 21 YO made it to rank 9 and Nikka Yoichi 10 to rank 14. [4]

In 2004, the 18-year-old Yamazaki was introduced to the US.[5] Japanese whiskies have been winning top honors in international competitions, notably Suntory.[6][7] At the 2003 International Spirits Challenge, Suntory Yamazaki won a gold medal, and Suntory whiskies continued to win gold medals every year through 2013,[7] with all three malt whiskies winning a trophy (the top prize) in either 2012 (Yamazaki 18 years old and Hakushu 25 years old) or 2013 (Hibiki 21 years old), and Suntory itself winning distiller of the year in 2010, 2012, and 2013.[6] The resultant acclaim nudged Japan's distilleries to market overseas.

Whisky Magazine has organized a series of blind tastings which have included Japanese single malts in the lineup, along with malts from distilleries considered to be among the best in Scotland. On more than one occasion, the results have had Japanese single malts (particularly those of Nikka's Yoichi and Suntory's Yamazaki) scoring higher than their Scottish counterparts.[8]

In August 2018, a 50-year-old Yamazaki first edition went for record $343,000 at a Bonhams auction in Hong Kong.[9]

The whisky produced by Venture Whisky Co., Ltd., which owns Chichibu distillery, was also highly evaluated and won the World's Best Blended Limited Release category for five consecutive years from 2017 to 2021 in a competition organized by Whisky Magazine.[10]


As of 2011, when the Shinshu Mars distillery reopened, there were around nine active whisky distilleries in Japan.[11][12] Active distilleries as of 2020 include:



A whisky highball at a bar in Japan

Japanese whisky is consumed either like Scotch whisky or like Japanese shōchū. The bulk of Japanese blended whisky is consumed in cocktails, notably as whisky highballs (ハイボール, haibōru) (similar to shōchū highballs, known as chūhai), while fine whisky is primarily drunk neat or on the rocks, as with Scotch whisky. Advertising for blended whisky generally features it consumed in a highball, and highballs made with Suntory's Kakubin are branded kaku-hai (カクハイ).

In addition to soda (in a highball), Japanese whisky is often drunk mixed with hot water o-yu-wari (お湯割り), particularly in winter, or cold water mizu-wari (水割り), particularly in summer, as is done with shōchū. Whisky is also commonly drunk with food, particularly in mixed drinks, especially highballs. The prevalence of mixing whisky with soda or water is particularly attributed to the hot, muggy Japanese summer, hence the popularity of long drinks.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Meltzer, Matt (24 February 2022). "13 Types Of Whiskey And What Makes Them Unique". Mashed. Retrieved 11 March 2022.
  2. ^ Chris Bunting, "Japanese Whisky: 'It's Called Queen George, and It's More Bitched Up Than Its Name'," in Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams, eds., Whiskey and Philosophy: A Small Batch of Spirited Ideas (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010), pp. 302–17.
  3. ^ Knight, Sophie., Shimizu, Ritsuko "Japan's whisky makers drum up global market for their drams", Reuters, 6 January 2014. Retrieved 28 February 2015.
  4. ^ http://www.whiskymag.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1963[dead link]
  5. ^ "Business News Today: Read Latest Business news, India Business News Live, Share Market & Economy News".
  6. ^ a b Suntory Whisky Distillery: Major Awards Archived 5 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ a b "Suntory Whiskies Hibiki, Yamazaki, and Hakushu Brands Take Total of Nine Gold Medals at the International Spirits Challenge 2013: Eleven Years of Winning with Suntory Whisky", News Release No. 11805, 11 June 2013
  8. ^ "'Yoichi' Marked the Highest Score Among the 47 Brands in the World" Archived 22 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine. Nikka Whiskey. Retrieved 22 October 2009.
  9. ^ "Bottle of Japanese whisky sells for record $343,000". Nikkei Asian Review. 18 August 2018.
  10. ^ "Whisky maker near Tokyo wins 'world's best' award for 5th consecutive year". Mainichi Shimbun. 10 April 2021. Archived from the original on 10 April 2021.
  11. ^ Øhrbom, Thomas. "Mars Whisky The Revival 2011 Komagatake", Whisky Saga, 11 August 2014. Retrieved 28 February 2015.
  12. ^ Active Japanese Distilleries
  13. ^ "Akkeshi Distillery - Dekanta"
  14. ^ "Akkeshi Distillery - High Road Spirits"
  15. ^ "English Site - 松井酒造合名会社|松井酒造合名会社". 25 January 2018.
  16. ^ Koutsakis, George. "The Man Behind The Last Drops Of The World's Rarest Whisky". Forbes. Retrieved 23 March 2021.




  • Ashcraft, Brian (2018). Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World's Most Desirable Spirit. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9784805314098.
  • Broom, Dave (2017). The Way of Whisky: A Journey Around Japanese Whisky. London: Mitchell Beazley. ISBN 9781784721428.
  • Bunting, Chris (2011). Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan's Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9784805310540.
  • Buxrud, Ulf (2008). Japanese Whisky: Facts, Figures and Taste. Malmö, Sweden: DataAnalys Scandinavia. ISBN 9789163320934.
  • Buxton, Ian (2012). 101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die. Edinburgh: Hachette Scotland. pp. 66–79. ISBN 9780755363193.
  • Checkland, Olive (1998). Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend: Masataka Taketsuru, the Japanese whisky king and Rita, his Scotch wife. Dalkeith: Scottish Cultural Press. ISBN 1840170034.
  • Grossman, Harold J.; Lembeck, Harriet (1977). Grossman's Guide to Wines, Beers, and Spirits (6th rev. ed.). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 343–4. ISBN 0684150336.
  • Roskrow, Dominic (2016). Whisky Japan: The Essential Guide to the World's Most Exotic Whisky. New York: Kodansha USA. ISBN 9781568365756.
  • Van Eycken, Stefan (2017). Whisky Rising: The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan. Kennebunkport, Maine: Cider Mill Press. ISBN 9781604336979.

External links[edit]