Kanpai! Toasting 100 years of Japanese whisky

Joel Harrison celebrates a century of Japanese whisky by charting its rise and exploring how the country's distilleries have created a distinct identity for their produce, meaning that today, Japanese whisky is anything but 'Japanese Scotch'

Words by Joel Harrison

Suntory Yamazaki distillery
The Yamazaki Distillery, established in 1923, is Japan's first and oldest malt whisky distillery

Scotland is a place of innovation. It is the home of such inventions as the radio, Bovril and the game of golf. The television, too. We even have the Scots to thank for the flushing toilet and penicillin. Yet what Scotland is most famous for is whisky.

Scotch has traditionally been the gold standard for whisky. Less bombastic than American bourbon, more premium than Irish whiskey; it is a signifier of an elevated status and a byword for luxury. A bottle of single malt Scotch displayed, trophy-like, in a drinks cabinet marks one out as a certain type of drinker; one with taste, knowledge, elegance and wealth.

There is, however, a new signifier in this world that has been a century in the making. Japanese whisky has climbed the status ladder and is now considered a connoisseur’s choice, showing off a consumer’s ability not just to appreciate great taste, style and status but adventure too.

Japanese whisky is now celebrating 100 years of production, which began when the Yamazaki distillery opened its doors in 1923. This was an important moment, not just for Japanese whisky but for the entire category, opening up the notion that non-Celtic nations can produce first class malt.

Shinjiro Torii
Shinjiro Torii, founder of Suntory

Driven in part by the popularity of the Highball (aka whisky and soda) in Japan, it was on these foundations the first whisky distillery in Japan, Yamazaki, built its easy-going style.

The Highball is a drink that has its roots in the early 20th century, as does Japanese-made whisky. One only has to pick up the works of novelist P.G. Wodehouse and engage with his most famous duo, Jeeves and Wooster, who regularly prepared (in the case of Jeeves) and consumed (in the case of Bertie Wooster) this refreshing-yet-simple mix. In Wodehouse’ 1916 story ‘Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest’, Bertie Wooster is supplied with a ‘nightly whisky-and-soda’, showing how this humble drink had become a staple of high society.

This easy-to-make drink of the upper classes found favour in Japan and one of Suntory’s earliest whiskies, Kakubin, released in 1937, was created specifically by Suntory’s founder, Shinjiro Torii, to work in a Highball. A homegrown alternative to the regular mixer in Japan, Scotch whisky, was born.

Woman drinking Highball
The love of the Highball in Japan was a driving force behind the creation of the country's first distilleries (Photo: Our Whisky Foundation - Jo Hanley)

Rarely found outside of its native homeland, Kakubin has allowed the Highball to become Japan’s flagship cocktail; it is even found on tap in many Japanese bars. If made directly for the consumer, extreme artistry is on show: Japanese bartenders will carefully stir high-quality ice in a long glass to chill, before adding one part whisky to two parts sparkling water. This process, evoking a Japanese tea ceremony, is testament to Japanese detail which, when woven together with a dedication to the production of whiskies of real complexity, creates the conditions for the success we see today.

Japanese whisky has climbed the status ladder and is now considered a connoisseur’s choice

Japanese whisky has, however, almost become a victim of this success. Suntory, the leading distiller of Japanese whisky, had to dial back on its age-stated whiskies a few years ago, moving away from the 10 and 12-years-old products to focus on its Distiller’s Reserve range of single malts created from a variety of ages. This allowed stocks to recover and only now are Suntory’s age-stated whiskies starting to return to shelves.

From the humble beginnings of producing whisky to be mixed with sparkling water, Suntory has slowly claimed a place at the top-table of both blended and single malts with whiskies from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. The former is the godfather of the category and in 2021 a 55-year-old Yamazaki was launched for £55,000. If you want to buy one today, it will set you back half a million quid. Style and status indeed.

Entrance to the Hakushu distillery
The Hakushu distillery was established exactly 50 years after Yamazaki and the location was chosen for the quality of the local water

The Japanese whisky industry is also moving towards greater regulation, after a series of exposés revealed that not all whiskies labelled as Japanese were made in the country. These regulations, issued by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA) have helped to define what ‘Japanese whisky’ really means for the consumer and has been welcomed as a result.

Greater transparency will further gild Japanese whisky’s reputation but it is the diligence and detail in distilling and maturation that sets it apart

Until now, whisk(e)y of any origin (Irish, Canadian, American or indeed Scotch) could be matured in Japan and bottled as Japanese. The new regulations have lead to some distillers changing the labelling on their bottles. This can be seen on Nikka’s much lauded From The Barrel: a product previously thought to be exclusively from Nikka’s Japanese distilleries, it now no longer qualifies to be labelled as Japanese whisky and is known instead as a ‘world blend’.

This effort to create greater transparency will further gild Japanese whisky’s reputation but it is the diligence and detail in distilling and maturation that sets it apart. Unlike in Scotland, where single malt distilleries stick stoically to a spirit style, each distillery in Japan is set up to produce multiple styles of whisky. The Yamazaki distillery boasts six types of still, of different shapes and sizes, while sister distillery Hakushu produces yet another different style, which carries a peaty, smoky note.

Yamazaki 12 year-old whisky
Japanese whisky has become so desirable that Suntory has had to reduce production of its 10 and 12 years-aged products in order to let stocks recover

And herein lies the big opportunity for Japanese whisky, for Scotch it is not. Scotland draws on the power of the many, with over 140 single malt distilleries mostly producing consistent spirit for blends, and occasionally liberating that spirit into single malt. Japan has forged its own approach to whisky-making, backed by a culture and style that creates a distinct product. After 100 years, Japanese whisky is comfortably capable of standing alongside Scotch in its own right, not merely as an imitation of it.

Japan and her whisky is all about creativity from within. It is this concept at Suntory that kickstarted the whole scene 100 years ago; the desire to create and innovate, to be self-sufficient and to make whisky that is easy drinking yet appealing, flavoursome and well-made. It is not ‘Japanese Scotch’, it is Japanese whisky and this, a century later, is what I’m celebrating.

What Joel has been drinking this month…

  • There is always a place in my weekly portfolio of drinks for something with a bit of punch to it; I’m thinking a Martini or Negroni. However, I also really value lower alcohol drinks and this month I have been enjoying the simple pleasures of a Campari and soda. Bitter, long, refreshing and lower in booze than a Gin and Tonic, it has been my go-to for when the sun shines. Try with plenty of ice and garnish wish a slice of orange.
  • Tequila is a drink for all seasons and this was recently showcased to me through a range-tasting of the wonderful Maestro Dobel label. Their lineup includes a classic silver Tequila (fresh, lithe and zesty), an Añejo (rich vanilla and oak) and a Humito (smoky and unctuous). The brightest star, however, is their Diamante offering, a Tequila aged in oak that then has the colour removed. This is the magician of Tequila, playing tricks on you as it delivers all the oaky richness of an aged Tequila but without any of the colour. Top stuff!
  • I am a bit in love with the new release from Scotland’s innovative InchDairnie distillery in Fife. Their RyeLaw bottling is a Scotch rye whisky that is made using 53% malted rye and 47% malted barley. It is complex and layered, with notes of ginger cake, cloves, blood orange and butterscotch. A totally new take on Scottish-made whisky, it is well worth checking out.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique.