A trend that does not seem to be abating: Japanesehas been enjoying ever-increasing popularity in recent years. For what was long considered a 'bad copy' of the Scottish , now occupies top positions in prizes and awards. But what is the difference between Japanese and ? This article explains the history, special features and of Japanese whiskies.
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 , Yamazaki, in the 1920s. He employed Taketsuru as a , 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 . 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 ' 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 .
The two types differ only slightly in the basic principle of production. Taketsuru brought the Scottish art of whisky to Japan. However, the process was refined and optimised here. Another important point is the local conditions, as the 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 and therefore also on . There is also a difference in the positions in the distilleries themselves. In Japan, the 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 ), 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.
Since April 2021, new regulations have been in force under which a whisky if it fulfils certain criteria. These are:may only be labelled as Japanese
- 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.
As already mentioned, the production process is very similar to that of Scotch. Here too, the basic ingredients are water, grain and . The main part of the flavour of a whisky depends on the production process. And the flavour of Japanese whisky is as follows:
Whilst barley grain to become alcohol, it is 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 .is not the only ingredient used in Japanese whiskies, it is still the largest component. In order for the
The grains are then laid out on the floor, where they water content of 45%. This is to ensure that the is broken down into during and thus released. While the germinating barley lies on the ' 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.with a desired
After germination, the 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 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 . And if it is used, it is usually imported from Scotland.
In the next step, the dry malt is ground and poured into the with hot water. This is where the dissolved sugar is separated from the grain. The malt is leached out three times with water at different temperatures. The sugar solution must be cooled down to 20° Celsius so that the yeast cultures now added can survive.
This mixture is filled into sugar contained in the liquid is converted into alcohol and by the yeast cultures. Two types of yeast are used for this: The distiller's yeast and the surplus from ale productions. In Scotland, ale yeast is being used less and less, but in Japan it remains part of the process. After 48 to 78 hours, a 'beer' (wash) is produced, with an of 8-10%.and remains there for two to four days. This is where the alcohol is produced: the
The wash is now poured into the pot stills (stills) or column stills). The traditional pot stills consist of the lower boiler, in which the wash is placed, which leads upwards into the and then continues into a pipe ( ). 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 has an influence on the flavour of the .(
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 ( ) is separated from the first and second cuts. The finished distillate is called and has an alcohol content of approx. 70%.
The New Make is now filled into barrels in which the whisky develops its . A mixture of the distillate and a little water is added to the , which lowers the alcohol content to 63-64%, which is the optimum alcohol strength for maturing. During maturation in the cask, the 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 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 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.,
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 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 blended to the desired flavour, it is bottled. The whisky can be bottled at , which means that it is not diluted. In this case, the alcohol content is between 53-65%. However, it is more common to the whisky to 40-48%, also to obtain more bottles from a . However, the must not fall below 40%.has been
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.
What do Japanese whiskies taste like? In this video, we savour one of the whiskies from the Far East: