Visiting Tokyo in 1923, Charles Workman, a Gilbert & Sullivan opera singer drank two glasses of Japanese whisky. Within two days he was dead from alcohol poisoning. It was the same year Japan’s first malt whisky distillery started construction – Shinjiro Torii’s Yamazaki Distillery between Kyoto and Osaka. Japan has a fascinating, sometimes perplexing role in the modern whisky industry.
Japan’s affair with whisky began in February 1854, when USNS Commander Perry arrived with gunboats to trade with Japan. In the cargo was a 100 gallons of American whiskey and a 42-gallon barrel destined as a gift for the Emperor.
Fifteen years after the Japanese first tasted whisky they filed a US Federal court case against a Cincinnati wholesaler for supplying them fake whisky, which they alleged was a blend of rectified grain spirit, not ‘pure rye whiskey’. Judge Alphonso Taft of the Superior Court of Cincinnati found in favour of the Japanese plaintiff making this the first ruling on whisky’s quality and product identity. Forty years later his son, President William Howard Taft made a similar ruling between straight and blended whisky establishing America’s product legal definition on what is whisky. While the Japanese prosecuted the first product standards on imported whiskies, there was another criterion for their domestic whisky. By the 1890s sake breweries and sochu distilleries were producing what became known as Osaka whisky. Many of these whiskies were distilled from koji rice and flavoured to taste like ersatz whisky. It was one of these imitation whiskies that ended Workman’s comic opera career.
In the late 19th century Scotch imports lagged behind America. After the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance, trade prospered, and Emperor Meiji granted Buchanan’s Scotch purveyor to the Imperial court. Japanese distillers then started naming their locally made whiskies after imported brands: House of Commons, Black & White, Glenlivet, even Queen George. In a landmark 1908 Tokyo court case on the infringement of registered foreign trademarks, the British distillers lost the appeal when the judge ruled the labels looked sufficiently different.
In the past 10 years Japanese whisky has rebounded, driven by the highball cocktail
Japan’s economic boom of the 1960s saw Suntory and Nikka ramp-up production. Nikka added column stills to supplement their range of different pot stills in 1964, Suntory followed in 1973. These increasing volumes by the two Japanese distilleries propelled the country to become the third largest manufacturer of whisky, behind America and Scotland. The lifting of Scotch import quotas in 1971 saw 54 million litres of Scotch imported in 1974, of which more than a third was bulk for blending into Japanese whisky. Japan became the second largest importer of Scotch by 1980. Consumption peaked at more than 300 million litres in the 1980s with 90 per cent Japanese whiskies. Then the whisky balloon deflated from the mid-1980s. Japan’s faltering economy in the 1990s, and global demand for whisky retreating, Japanese production and sales collapsed, fell by more than two-thirds. In the past 10 years Japanese whisky has rebounded driven by the highball cocktail and international demand. In 2017 more than three million litres of bulk Scotch was imported including one and a half million of malt for blending into Japanese whiskies. With Suntory and Nikka’s distilleries producing more than 90 per cent of domestic whisky, blending is one of the manufacturing instruments the Japanese employ to extend brand portfolios. They also employ a wide variety of pot still shapes to affect differing new-make profiles. Yeast strains and fermentation techniques receive their special attention. Bamboo charcoal filtration and different cask woods blended with Scotch, and other whiskies allowing hundreds of Japanese whisky labels to have different flavour profiles.
If you’re a provenance purist, such an open code dogma may be an anathema to you. However, these minimal regulatory standards for Japanese whisky creates freedom and creativity allowing the use of worldwide and Japanese whisky stocks to extend blending boundaries by broadening flavour choice and price point.