Production of Japanese whisky

A trend that does not seem to be abating: Japanese whisky has been enjoying ever-increasing popularity in recent years. For what was long considered a 'bad copy' of the Scottish single malt, now occupies top positions in prizes and awards. But what is the difference between Japanese and Scotch whisky? This article explains the history, special features and production of Japanese whiskies.

History of Japanese Whisky

How did whisky actually come to be produced in Japan? Distilled alcohol is nothing new in this country. Sake and shōchū (rice wine and schnapps) have long been part of the culture. After a few unsuccessful attempts around 1870, whisky made a comeback with Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. Torii opened Japan's first whisky distillery, Yamazaki, in the 1920s. He employed Taketsuru as a master distiller, who had previously spent years in Scotland studying distilleries such as Lagavulin, Hazelburn and Craigellachie. This company became Suntory, one of the largest spirits groups in the world. When Taketsuru left the company, he founded Nikka, also one of the largest producers in Japan.

For a long time, Japanese whisky remained within the country's borders. This was because distilled spirits became increasingly popular, which meant that distilleries were faced with huge demand in the 1960s and 1970s and had to produce quickly. There was not much left for export. And those that did make it onto the international market were mostly cheaply produced bottlings that left a bad impression on whisky connoisseurs. Whisky consumption per capita in Japan is now higher than in the USA or England.

It was not until the turn of the millennium, when whiskies of outstanding quality made it across national borders, that demand began to grow. Not least due to the increasing number of awards. The highlight came in 2007: two Japanese whiskies took first place in the 'World Whiskies Award'. The Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 Years Old won 'World's Best Blended Malt' and the Suntory Hibiki 30 Years Old won 'World's Best Blended'. From this point onwards at the latest, Japanese whisky was ranked between Scotch single malt and bourbon.

Differences between Japanese and Scotch Whisky

The two types differ only slightly in the basic principle of production. Taketsuru brought the Scottish art of distilling whisky to Japan. However, the process was refined and optimised here. Another important point is the local conditions, as the water in Japan makes a big difference. This is much softer and milder than the Scottish water. Most of the distilleries are located in regions that have a similar climate to Scotland. However, Japan is subject to greater monthly temperature changes than Scotland, which has a major influence on maturation and therefore also on flavour. There is also a difference in the positions in the distilleries themselves. In Japan, the master blender is the most senior person in production and not the master distiller, as is often the case in Scotland. Here, the master distiller only has the function of producing the basic ingredients.

Another difference lies in the type of blends. While in Scotland more and more emphasis is placed on producing single malts (whisky whose distillate comes from just one distillery), the Japanese mostly produce blends. However, these in turn are not from different distilleries. They refrain from selling the distilled spirit among the companies and thus to the competition. The blends are therefore most often mixed from the distillates of distilleries that belong to the same group. This gives large companies with many distilleries an advantage, as they can achieve greater complexity. And it is not outlandish for Japanese whisky producers to buy distilleries in Scotland. A more well-known case is the takeover of Jim Beam by Suntory.

New regulations

Since April 2021, new regulations have been in force under which a whisky may only be labelled as Japanese whisky if it fulfils certain criteria. These are:

  • Malted grain must be used as the base material; other grains may be added.
  • The water used must come from Japan.
  • The production process from mashing to fermentation to distillation and the storage of the barrels must take place in a Japanese distillery.
  • Distillation is permitted up to a maximum of 95% vol.
  • Japanese whisky must be stored for at least three years in wooden casks with a maximum volume of 700 litres.
  • When bottling, which must take place in Japan, the alcohol content of the whisky must not fall below 40% vol.
  • Colouring with caramel (E150) is permitted.

→ More information here.

How is Japanese Whisky made?

As already mentioned, the production process is very similar to that of Scotch. Here too, the basic ingredients are water, grain and yeast. The main part of the flavour of a whisky depends on the production process. And the flavour of Japanese whisky is as follows:

Malting the barley

Whilst barley is not the only ingredient used in Japanese whiskies, it is still the largest component. In order for the barley grain to become alcohol, it is soaked in the first step. To do this, it is filled into vats with water at a temperature of around 15° Celsius. The water is exchanged a few times during the process and oxygen is added, which accelerates the barley's absorption of water.

The grains are then laid out on the floor, where they germinate with a desired water content of 45%. This is to ensure that the starch is broken down into sugar during fermentation and thus released. While the germinating barley lies on the 'malting floors', it is repeatedly turned over to ensure that all the grains germinate evenly. In total, the barley germinates for between five and nine days.

After germination, the barley is dried (kilning). It is spread out on grates while still damp and dried from below with hot air. As we know it from Scotland, the fire over which the barley is dried may contain peat. The smoke from a peat fire gives the barley, and therefore later the whisky, a smoky flavour. However, the use of peat is rather uncommon in Japanese distilleries. And if it is used, it is usually imported from Scotland.

Alcoholic fermentation (mashing & fermentation)

In the next step, the dry malt is ground and poured into the mash tun with hot water. This is where the dissolved sugar is separated from the grain. The malt mash is leached out three times with water at different temperatures. The finished sugar solution must be cooled down to 20° Celsius so that the yeast cultures now added can survive.

This mixture is filled into wash backs and remains there for two to four days. This is where the alcohol is produced: the sugar contained in the liquid is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the yeast cultures. Two types of yeast are used for this: The distiller's yeast and the surplus yeast from ale productions. In Scotland, ale yeast is being used less and less, but in Japan it remains part of the production process. After 48 to 78 hours, a 'beer' (wash) is produced, with an alcohol content of 8-10%.

Distillation

The wash is now poured into the pot stills (stills) or column stills (column stills). The traditional pot stills consist of the lower boiler, in which the wash is placed, which leads upwards into the neck and then continues into a pipe (lyne arm). The kettle is heated from below or from the inside. The boiling wash then releases the alcohol via the resulting vapour. The vapour rises upwards into the neck, where it is collected. The alcohol is discharged into the condenser via the Lyne arm, where it cools down and becomes liquid again. The respective shape of the pot still has an influence on the flavour of the whisky.

After the first distillation, the alcohol content has risen to 20-30%. During the subsequent second distillation, the alcohol is now divided into parts. The usable alcohol (middle cut) is separated from the first and second cuts. The finished distillate is called New Make and has an alcohol content of approx. 70%.

Maturation in the cask

The New Make is now filled into barrels in which the whisky develops its flavour. A mixture of the distillate and a little water is added to the cask, which lowers the alcohol content to 63-64%, which is the optimum alcohol strength for maturing. During maturation in the cask, the colour changes to the golden brown that we know from the finished bottles.

Depending on the length of maturation, the casks used or the climate of the location, a wide variety of whiskies are produced. What they all have in common, however, is that the whisky reacts with the air and the wood of the cask. The special climate in Japan creates a completely different, unique flavour. The master blender at the distillery decides how long the maturation period should be. However, the maturation period has been prescribed by law since 2021. For whisky to be labelled as Japanese whisky, it must be matured for at least three years.

When it comes to the type of wooden casks, oak casks are usually used, similar to their Scottish counterparts. However, more and more local types of wood are being used, such as Mizunara oak or cherry tree (Sakura). Examples of this are The Matsui Mizunara or The Matsui Sakura Single Cask.

Blending & bottling

To ensure that whiskies in a series always taste the same, the master blender at the distillery mixes different casks, including those of different ages. The master blender also creates balanced blends outside of the series. As each cask is unique, the differences have to be equalised. This can sometimes result in up to 40 different cask proportions coming together. Sugar caramel, also known as food colouring, is used to ensure that the blends have the same colour.

Once the whisky has been blended to the desired flavour, it is bottled. The whisky can be bottled at cask strength, which means that it is not diluted. In this case, the alcohol content is between 53-65%. However, it is more common to dilute the whisky to 40-48%, also to obtain more bottles from a bottling. However, the alcohol content must not fall below 40%.

The special Whisky from the Far East

Whether Japanese whisky is better than Scotch whisky is for everyone to decide for themselves. However, it is clear that the increasing popularity will not stop in the near future. It is definitely worth testing the whisky range from the island nation.

The Matsui Peated
The Matsui Peated
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Togouchi Sake Cask Finish (B-Ware)
Togouchi Sake Cask Finish (B-Ware)
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Suntory Yamazaki 100th Anniversary Edition 12 Years
Suntory Yamazaki 100th Anniversary Edition 12 Years
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Togouchi Kiwami
Togouchi Kiwami
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Nikka The Grain Whisky /2023
Nikka The Grain Whisky /2023
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Shizuoka United S First Edition Japanese Barley /2024
Shizuoka United S First Edition Japanese Barley /2024
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Nikka 12 Years
Nikka 12 Years
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Suntory Hakushu 12 Years
Suntory Hakushu 12 Years
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Nikka Yoichi Aromatic Yeast /2022
Nikka Yoichi Aromatic Yeast /2022
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Suntory Hibiki Blossom Harmony 2022 (B-Ware) /2022
Suntory Hibiki Blossom Harmony 2022 (B-Ware) /2022
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
The Kurayoshi 12 Years
The Kurayoshi 12 Years
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Suntory Yamazaki 12 Years
Suntory Yamazaki 12 Years
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Akashi Meisei
Akashi Meisei
0,5/ l · incl.  VAT
Nikka From the Barrel - Silhouette (B-Ware)
Nikka From the Barrel - Silhouette (B-Ware)
0,5/ l · incl.  VAT
Hatozaki Pure Malt
Hatozaki Pure Malt
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Nikka Yoichi Single Malt (B-Ware)
Nikka Yoichi Single Malt (B-Ware)
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Suntory Hakushu (B-Ware) 12 Years
Suntory Hakushu (B-Ware) 12 Years
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Suntory Whisky Toki
Suntory Whisky Toki
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Suntory Hakushu Peated Malt 100th Anniversary Edition 18 Years
Suntory Hakushu Peated Malt 100th Anniversary Edition 18 Years
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Mars Komagatake - Shinshu /2022
Mars Komagatake - Shinshu /2022
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Hatozaki Pure Malt (B-Ware)
Hatozaki Pure Malt (B-Ware)
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Kanosuke
Kanosuke
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Togouchi Premium
Togouchi Premium
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Japan Live Event Set, large
Japan Live Event Set, large
2,1/ l · incl.  VAT
Chichibu Ichiro's Malt Red Wine Cask /2023
Chichibu Ichiro's Malt Red Wine Cask /2023
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT

More information about Japanese whiskies:

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

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What do Japanese whiskies taste like? In this tasting video, we savour one of the whiskies from the Far East:

This slot is intended for displaying content of the external provider (https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/). Please be aware that this content as well as the processing of your user data when clicking on this link is outside of Whisky.de's responsibility and potentially not subject to the General Data Protection Regulation anymore.
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