Japanese Whisky production - Yamazaki distillery

Production of Japanese Whisky

A trend, with no end in sight: Japanese Whisky’s popularity has been rising steadily for a few years. What was once called ‘a bad copy’ of Scotch Single Malt is now winning awards. But what is the difference between Japanese and Scottish Whisky? This article describes the history and the production of Japanese Whisky - and why it is special.

The History of Japanese Whisky Production

How did it happen, that Whisky is produced in Japan? Distilled spirit is nothing new in the country. For a long time, Sake and Shōchū (Rice Wine and Schnapps) have been part of the culture. After a few unsuccessful tries in the 1870s, Whisky was brought back with Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. In 1920, Torii opened the first Whisky distillery in Japan with the name Yamazaki. He employed Taketsuru as the master distiller, who was spending the years prior in Scotland, studying the production in distilleries like Lagavulin, Hazelburn or Craigellachie. The founded company later on became Suntory, one of the biggest Liquor corporate groups in the world. When Taketsuru left the company, he founded Nikka, which also is one of the biggest producers in Japan.

Japanese Whisky production - Statue Toji Shinjiro
Statue of Torii Shinjiro at the Yamazaki distillery

For a long time, Japanese Whisky stayed within the country. The reason was the rising popularity, which in the 1960s and 1970s led to a huge demand, that distilleries had to quickly meet. There was not enough Whisky left for export. Those who did make it to the international market were mostly cheaply produced bottles, which left a bad impression on connoisseurs worldwide. Today the average consumption of Whisky per single person in Japan is higher than in the USA or England.

But only since the turn of the millennium, when good Whisky finally reached the international stage, the demand grew. Even further with the rising number of awards and prices the Whiskies won. In 2007, the first highlight was achieved: Within the ‘World Whiskies Awards‘ two Japanese Whiskies were placed first. ‘World‘s Best Blended Malt‘ was awarded to Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 Years Old and Suntory Hibiki 30 Years Old won ‘World‘s Best Blended‘. Since then Japanese Whisky is considered to be on par with Scotch Single Malt and Bourbon.

Differences between Japanese Whisky and Scottish Whisky

The basics of the production only differ slightly. Taketsuru brought the Scottish art of Whisky production to Japan. But the process was refined and optimized here. An important aspect is the local factors, in which the water of Japan makes a big difference. It is more smooth and mild in comparison. Most locations of the distilleries are regions with a similar climate to Scotland. But there is a greater monthly change of temperature in Japan, which strongly influences the maturation in casks. But also within the distilleries, there are some differences. In Japan, the master blender is the highest position and not the master distiller, like in Scotland.

Another distinction is in the ways of blending. While in Scotland the emphasis is put on producing Single Malts (Whisky distilled in only one distillery), in Japan it is more common to make Blends. But the Whisky for blending is not coming from any distillery. The distilleries refrain from selling or purchasing spirit from the competition. The Blends are married with spirit from distilleries that are owned by the same company. Big companies with many distilleries under their name, therefore have an advantage, they can create more complex Whisky. It is also not unlikely to buy Scottish distilleries. A well-known case is Suntory, which owns among others the distilleries Ardmore, Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Laphroaig.

Regulations

Since April 2021, new regulations apply, in which a Whisky can only be called a Japanese Whisky, when certain requirements are met:

  • The starting material has to be malted barley, other type of grains can be added.
  • The used water has to be from Japan.
  • The production process of the malting, fermentation and distillation, as well as the maturing in casks, has to take place in a Japanese distillery.
  • The spirit can only be distilled to a 95% alchohol content.
  • Japanese Whisky has to be matured for at least three years in a wood cask, with a maximum volume of 700 litres.
  • The bottling has to take place in Japan and the alcohol strength must not be under 40%.
  • Colouring is allowed.

-> More Information here.

Production of Japanese Whisky

The production is, like mentioned before, very close to the Scottish. The basic ingredients are also water, grains and yeast. The taste of a Whisky mainly depends on the production. In case of Japanese Whisky, the production looks like this:

The Malting of Barley

While not only barley is used, it is still the main ingredient. In order to transform the barley to alcohol, it is steeped in the first step. This happens in tuns filled with 15° C warm water. The water is changed a few times during the process and oxygen is added, which speeds up the water intake of the barley.

After the steeping, the grain is spread across the floor, where it germinates with the wanted water content of 45%. With this, the starch splits into sugar and isreleased during the fermentation more easily. While the germinating barley is laying on the malting floors, is it periodically turned over, so that the grains evenly germinate. This process takes five to nine days.

Once this step is finished, the barley is dried (kilned). Still wet, it is spread over a drying floor and dried from beneath with hot air. Like we know from Scotland, the fire over which the barley is dried can contain peat. The smoke of the peat causes a smoky note later on in the Whisky. But the use of peat is not common in Japan. And in the case it is used, it is mostly imported from Scotland.

Japanese Whisky - Malting the Barley
Bags with malt at Shinshu Mars distillery

The Mashing and Alcoholic Fermentation

In the next step, the dried malt is ground and filled into the mash tun with hot water. In there, the sugar is splitting from the grain. Three times, the malt mash is leached. The finished sugar solution has to be cooled down to 20°C, so yeast cultures can survive.

The mix then is filled into wash backs and stays there for two to four days. Here, the alcohol forms. The sugar contained in the liquid is transformed into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the yeast cultures. For this, two kinds of yeast are used: the distillation yeast and the leftover yeast from the ale production. In Scotland, the ale yeast is used less and less, while Japan keeps it. After 48 to 78 hours, a wash with an alcohol strength of 8-10% is created.

Japanese Whisky production - alcoholic fermentation
Mashtun of Yamazaki

The Distillation

The wash is filled into pot or column stills, depending on which kind is used. The traditional pot stills consist of the lower kettle, which containes the wash. The kettle is leading to the neck and the following lyne arm above. The pot is heated from below or within. The boiling wash is emitting the alcohol through the created steam. The steam rises towards the neck, where it is caught. Over the lyne arm, the alcohol is led to the condenser, where it changes back to a liquid form. The different forms of pot stills have an influence on the taste of Whisky.

After the first distillation, the alcohol contents rose to 20-30%. Within the second distillation, the alcohol is cut into parts. The usable alcohol, the middle cut, is parted from the foreshots and faints. The finished spirit is called new make and has an alcohol strength of ca. 70%.

Japanese Whisky production - pot stills
Pot stills of Miyagikyo

The Maturing in Casks

The new make is filled into casks, in which the Whisky develops a great part of its taste. Water is added to the Whisky to reduce the alcohol strength to 63% - 64%, which is the optimal alcohol strength for maturing. Within the casks, the colour of the liquid changes to a gold-brown, which we know from the finished bottle.

Depending on the duration of maturation, the used casks and the climate of the location, the most different Whiskies are created. But for all applies: the Whisky reacts with the wood of the casks and with the air. Therefore a completely unique and different character of taste is created in Japan. How long the maturation should take is up to the master blender of the distillery. But since 2021 the minimum duration is regulated. To call the Whisky a Japanese Whisky, the maturation has to last for at least three years.

The type of casks used is similar to the Scottish colleagues with the usage of oak casks. But more and more local wood types are used, like mizunara oak or cherry tree (sakura). Examples of this are The Matsui Mizunara or The Matsui Sakura Cask.

Japanese Whisky production - warehouse
Warehouse of Akkeshi

Blending & Bottling

For Whisky in a series to always taste the same, the master blender of the distillery is blending different casks, even with different ages. But also outside of those series, the master blender creates harmonious Blends. Because each cask is unique, the difference has to be balanced out. In few cases, almost 40 different shares of casks are blended together. In order for all the Blends to have the same colour, caramel colour is added.

After the Whisky is blended to the wanted taste, it is bottled. The Whisky can be bottled with cask strength, which means, that it is not diluted. In those cases, the alcohol contents is between 53-65%. But it is more commonly to dilute the Whisky to 40-48%, also in order to fill more single bottles. But the contents must not be under 40%.

Japanese Whisky production - Blending
Blending at Fuji Gontemba

The Special Whisky from the Far East

If Japanese Whisky is really better than Scotch, each of us has to decide for himself. But it is clear, that the popularity will remain on the rise in the coming years. It is definitely worth trying the Whisky range of the island nation.

Japanese Whisky production - bottles
Examples of Japanese Whiskies

More Information about Japanese Whisky

See the production of Japanese Whisky live. In this video we visited the Miyagikyo distillery:

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How does Japanese Whisky taste? In this tasting video wie tried one of the Whiskies from the Far East:

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You can find even more information in our vast Database. All about Japanese distilleries, or about particular bottles:

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