Japanese Whisky Production - Yamazaki Distillery

Japanese whisky production

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 it actually come about that whisky is produced in Japan? Distilled alcohol is nothing strange in this country. Sake and Shōchū (rice wine and brandy) have long been part of the culture. After a few unsuccessful attempts around 1870, whisky re-emerges with Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. Torii opened Japan's first whisky distillery called Yamazaki in the 1920s. He hired Taketsuru as a master distiller, who had previously spent years in Scotland studying distilleries such as Lagavulin, Hazelburn and Craigellachie. This company becomes 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.

Japanese Whisky Production - Torii Shinjiro
Stature of Torii Shinjiro at the Yamazaki Distillery

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

It was not until the turn of the millennium, when whiskies of outstanding quality also made it across national borders, that demand grew. Not least because of the increasing number of awards. The highlight came in 2007 when 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 on, at the latest, Japanese whisky joined the ranks between Scotch single malt and bourbon.

Differences between Japanese and Scotch whisky

In the basic principle of production, the two types differ only slightly. Taketsuru brought the Scottish art of whisky distilling to Japan. But here the process was refined and optimised. Another important point is the local conditions, in that the water in Japan makes a big difference. It is much softer and milder than the Scottish water. Most of the distilleries are located in regions with a similar climate to Scotland. However, Japan is subject to a greater monthly temperature change than Scotland, which has a great influence on the maturation and thus also on the taste. In the distilleries themselves, there is also a difference in positions. In Japan, the master blender is the highest-ranking 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 only one distillery), the Japanese mostly produce blends. These, in turn, are not from the most diverse distilleries. They refrain from selling the distillate among the companies and thus to the competition. The blends are thus most often made from the distillery spirits of distilleries that belong to the same group. Large companies with many distilleries have an advantage because they can achieve more complexity. And it is not far-fetched for Japanese whisky producers to buy distilleries in Scotland. A better-known case is the takeover of Jim Beam by Suntory.

New regulations

Since April 2021, new regulations apply under which a whisky can only call itself Japanese whisky if it meets certain criteria. These are:

  • Malted grain must be used as the raw material; other grain 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.
  • The maximum distillation volume is 95%.
  • Japanese whisky must be stored for at least three years in wooden barrels with a maximum volume of 700 litres.
  • When bottled, 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?

The production is, as already mentioned, very similar to Scottish. Here, too, the basic ingredients are water, grain and yeast. The main part of a whisky's taste depends on how it is made. And this is as follows for Japanese whisky:

Malting the barley

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

The grains are then laid out on the ground where they germinate with a desired water content of 45%. This is to ensure that the starch is broken down into sugars during fermentation and thus released. While the germinating barley is lying on the 'Malting Floors', it is turned over again and again to ensure that all 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 moist 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 thus later the whisky, a smoky note. However, the use of peat is rather uncommon in Japanese distilleries. And if it is used, it is usually imported from Scotland.

Japanese Whisky Production - Barley
Malt bags at Shinshu Mars

The alcoholic fermentation (mashing & fermentation)

The dry malt is ground in the next step and filled into the mash tun with hot water. This is where the dissolved sugar is supposed to separate from the grain. The malt mash is leached three times with different hot water. The finished sugar solution must be cooled to 20° Celsius so that the yeast cultures now added survive.

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

Japanese Whisky Production - Mashtun Yamazaki
Mashtun from Yamazaki

The burning (distillation)

The wash is now poured into the pot stills or column stills. The traditional pot stills consist of a lower vessel containing the wash, which leads upwards into the neck and then into a tube (Lyne arm). The kettle is heated from below or inside. The boiling wash releases the alcohol via the vapour produced. The steam rises upwards into the neck, where it is captured. Via the Lyne Arm, the alcohol is discharged into the condenser, where it cools down and becomes liquid again. The respective shape of the pot stills has an influence on the taste of the whisky.

After a 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 (middlecut) is separated from the pre- and post-distillate. The finished distillate is called New Make and has an alcohol content of about 70%.

Japanese whisky production - Potstills Miyagikyo
Miyagikyo stills

Maturation in the barrel

Now the New Make is filled into barrels in which the whisky develops its flavour. A mixture of the distillate and a little water is put into the cask, which lowers the alcohol content to 63-64%, which is the optimal alcohol strength for maturing. In the cask, the colour changes during maturation to the golden brown 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. But what is the same in all of them is that the whisky reacts with the air and the wood of the barrel. The special climate in Japan creates a completely different, unique flavour. The master blender of the distillery decides how long the maturation period should be. However, since 2021, the maturing time has been prescribed by law. For the whisky to be called Japanese whisky, it must mature for at least three years.

Similar to their Scottish counterparts, oak barrels are usually used for the casks. But more and more local types of wood are being used, such as Mizunara oak or cherry tree (Sakura). Examples are The Matsui Mizunara or The Matsui Sakura Single Cask.

Japanese whisky production - Akkeshi barrel warehouse
Akkeshi barrel store

Blending & Bottling

To ensure that whiskies in a series always taste the same, the distillery's master blender blends different casks, even with different ages. Likewise, outside the series, the master blender creates balanced blends. Since each barrel is unique, the differences have to be balanced. In the process, it can happen that up to 40 different cask proportions come together. To ensure that the blends have the same colour, sugar caramel, also known as food colouring, is used.

After the whisky has been blended to the desired taste, it is bottled. In this process, 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 get more bottles from one bottling. However, the alcohol content must not fall below 40%.

Japanese Whisky Production - Blending Fuji Gontemba
Blending in Fuji Gontemba

The special whisky from the Far East

Whether Japanese whisky is better than Scotch whisky is something everyone must 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.

Production of Japanese whisky bottles
Examples of Japanese whisky

More information on Japanese whiskies:

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

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

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Even more information is available in our huge database. Everything about Japanese distilleries, or the individual bottles:

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