Japanese whiskies occupy, and have for the past several years, the top tier of global whiskies. This despite their relatively recent advent, very small market share in Japan, fierce competition and a couple of centuries of experience from nations where whisky is both terroir driven as well as a facet of national cultures.
In 2012, the world's best single malt whisky was given to Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky 25 Years Old. In 2013, the same award was given to Suntory Hibiki 21 Years Old. The world's best blended malt whisky in 2014 was awarded to Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old.
In Japan itself, Massan, a popular television series that ran from September 2014 to March 2015, told the story of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of the Nikka Distillery, and his love of Jessie Roberta 'Rita' Cowan, a Scotswoman he met while researching whiskies in Scotland in order to create the industry back home. So influential was the series in Japan, that sales spiked. Most of all, it got Japanese women drinking whisky, which in the country was historically the province of men.
According to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, 'Since the show started airing in September, Nikka's domestic whisky sales are up 50 per cent from the same period last year. Suntory and Nikka are both launching limited edition vintages aimed at Massan viewers.'
And according to Japan Times, there is an inability to maintain supplies.
"We're not keeping up with demand," said Hasumi Ozawa, a spokeswoman for Suntory. "Suntory says it is limiting its shipments to cope with the whisky boom, despite having ramped up production at its distilleries two years ago." Japan Times notes further that although, 'Whisky has traditionally been a minority interest in Japan's huge drinks market, where it accounts for just 1.16 per cent of total sales, producers say this is growing.'
There is enough of a range of first-rate whiskies being produced in Japan nowadays as to merit a publication devoted strictly to them: www.nonjatta.com. And while the big names are becoming increasingly recognisable as international brands - Suntory and Nikka - one finds about nine distilleries in total. But not one of them can keep up with global consumer demand for the best whiskies, and nor are there but relatively few single malt vintage bottles available to all but elite collectors.
How did this come about? What in the history and unique evolution of Japanese production of whiskies brought about a state in which they garner top awards and simply cannot be found readily anywhere? And why did the Japanese bother to make whisky in the first place? Why not just continue to enjoy the best from Scotland?
The story of Japanese whisky has always combined passion as well as pragmatism. With the Westernization of Japan, subsequent in the first decades after the 1853 naval 'challenge' of Admiral Matthew Perry, styles, products, and institutions began to reflect the best of what was to be found in Europe and the United States. What was pursued and later perfected was a reflection of thinking and feeling; what would fit in with washoku (pre-Western) culture and society in Japan? As a result, those things which emerged from Western influence were not superficial, derivative, or second-rate.
At its best, whisky, like sake, is savoured, and it's no coincidence that many whisky makers come from families that had been making sake for centuries.
When Masataka Taketsuru went to Scotland in 1918, it was with the intent of studying organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow. That happened as did employment at distilleries. He returned with a Scottish wife and the knowledge that led to his helping to become the progenitor of whisky in Japan. His family background was in sake production. He helped to establish what became Suntory, and in 1934 started his own distillery on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. This later became Nikka.
The other whisky maker who vies for the title of founder of whisky in Japan is Shinjiro Torii. A pharmaceutical wholesaler, he was the one who hired Taketsuru to help establish Kotobukiya Distillery, which later became Suntory. Keizo Saji, Torii's second son (adopted by his wife's relatives), took over the business in the 1960s and is credited with helping to raise the standards of single malt whisky in Japan.
Frankly, it's really only been about 20 years that Japan has been producing world class whisky, and that's because, in part, the industry was disrupted by the severe and catastrophic anti-Western ideology of imperial Japan from 1931 - 1945. Whisky was looked down as a foreign and enemy product.
Subsequent to the war, in the mid to late 1940s, the industry expanded with licenses and production. In the 1980s, single malt whiskies in Japan started to show signs of excellence to respond, in part, to growing affluence in Japan.
The whisky industry really took off in the 1990s for two reasons. First, with the Japanese economy stagnating, the government encouraged the industry to modernise marketing, methodology, and distribution in order to create a global market that would help increase exports and decrease imports.
Second, there was (and continues to be) a steady decline of sake consumption; whisky in Japan has become a popular substitute. In fact, while connossieurs in Japan savour whisky straight or with a splash of water, the biggest sellers are whisky high balls, mixed at a bar or pre-mixed and sold in cans.
The industry in Japan is made up of less than a dozen major distilleries, but the market share of what is sold is divided chiefly between Suntory (Now known as Beam Suntory since Suntory's purchase of Beam, Inc. for $13.6 billion in 2014.) and Nikka. Suntory owns Yamazaki and Hakushu. Nikka owns Yoichi and Miyagiko. That leaves Fuji Gotemba (owned by Kirin, which is more famous for its beer), Shinshu (or Hombo Mars), White Oak, Eigashima, and Chichibu.
Further, the top two distilleries often have control over a wide range of bottling and distribution. When rankings by international judges are given to Japan's best whiskies, usually the top prizes are awarded strictly to whiskies from either Suntory or Nikka. (Though lately Chichibu is making the lists).
There are tiny distilleries with extremely low production and while these typically cannot be found in retail stores, a few whisky bars, like the legendary Zoetrope Bar in Shinjuku, Tokyo, has literally hundreds of sometimes single bottles on display.
Atsushi Horigami, the owner of Zoetrope, is happy to share his love of whiskies (and movies, which is why the bar is called Zoetrope), but his English is limited so be prepared.
Japanese's hermetic and secretive approach to industry means in this case that the number of stills and volume of production is not made publicly available, but what is key to know is that demand for single malt, vintage whiskies far outstrips the demand both at present and very likely for many years to come. Up until 2013, it was possible to buy single malt, vintage Japanese whiskies for under £65. At present, the Chichibu Single Malt 130.1 goes for about £330, the Yamazaki 2013 is about £240, and so on. And that's only if you can find them. As a result of scarcity and price, the top distilleries are introducing into the market delicious, non vintage blended whiskies.
Within Japan, the pleasures of whisky can be celebrated and understood at high end bars, like Zoetrope or New York Grill. The latter appeared in, Lost in Translation, in which Bill Murray played an actor touting whisky - 'It's Suntory time!' was his tagline - and today has a range of best of Japan.
It is also possible to visit Nikka and Suntory owned distilleries. The main Nikka Distillery (www.nikka.com/eng/distilleries/ yoichi) is in Yoichi, a village on Hokkaido, and you can either tour with a guide (Japanese speaking only) or stroll the grounds independently. Every July a festival is held on the property having to do with fishermen, and while it's not about whisky, it does show the integration of the distillery in local life.
Closer to Tokyo and Kyoto is the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery (www.suntory.com/factory/yamazaki/ inspection), which is also open for tours.
While reasons for Japan's ascendency in whisky are pragmatic, romantic, and at one time quixotic, the results are an ironic commentary on terroir. Except for the use of Mizunara (Japanese oak) and perhaps some aspects of local water - Suntory's Yamazaki Distillery is located beside a spring whose waters were said to be so good that sake was made here for centuries - Japanese whisky is a nod to the human touch and indeed a combination of romance and science.