In continuation to our whisky fun facts write up, I thought of including another post that involves a genre that had critics and distillers alike left in awe, jaws dropped and taken aback. The awards were almost always ‘reserved’ for the Scots and the Irish, but all heads turned towards this entrant from the East – 2001, 2003 and at least one award for every year to come. In fact it was just last year Jim Murray quoted the 2013 Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Casks to be “near incredible genius” giving it a score of 97.5 and placing it at the top of his list!
For the whisky experts this might seem to be a trivial set of text, but for those who are still settling into the whisky world I’m hoping this might be a source of enlightenment!
#1. Japanese Whisky – a pass on the ‘e’!
Japanese whisky was and still is very much influenced by the Scots and their many processes – be it the way by which barley is malted, the use of traditional copper pot stills, or the fact that whisky is distilled twice. And so… it only made sense that they incorporate their styles and adopt their syntax.
#2. Their origins aren’t recent – close to a century!
One of the pioneers of Japanese Whisky – Matsutaka Taketsuru was the son of a Sake maker who studied fermentation from Osaka University and travelled to Scotland in 1918 to complete his studies at Glasgow University. Once done, he worked as an apprentice in the many distilleries in and around Campbeltown only to return in 1920.
Due to a lack of funds he chose to join Suntory in 1924 in an attempt to create his first whisky. Unfortunately, the spirit turned out to be too harsh and wasn’t well received amongst the locals. Undeterred with still a lot of vigour, he left Suntory in 1934 to create his own distillery, Nikka, and whiskies that brought him to fame and fortune.
Funny thing… Suntory kept Taketsuru’s initial batch and allowed it to mature for another 7-8 years. The result was overwhelming!
#3 Does the Japanese import their peat?
Yes and No.
The Japanese do have a portion of their barley coming in from the local markets. But due to limited quantities and a higher pricing structure they chose to import most of their barley from the lands of Scotland, US and Australia.
The Japanese do not prefer a lot of peat in their whisky and so, much of their barley isn’t peated heavily. Initially the practise was to import the peat itself but with time many moved towards importing peated barley as that seemed less cumbersome and more efficient. Now having said that there are sources of peat bogs within Japan, one of which being the Ishikari River Basin whose resources are being utilised by some.
#4 The Japanese do not share
More than 90% of all malt whisky produced in Scotland is used in the production of blends. And with over 100+ distilleries spread across, it is customary for most to ‘share’ their produce amongst one another.
Japan sadly hadn’t been that fortunate. With only 2 predominate distilleries at first it was next to impossible to even consider any kind of exchange possible. And in a way, each was forced to begin crafting their own whiskies- several tens to hundreds using a permutation of different techniques-many involving the use of dozens of yeast strains that provided varied fermentation, differently shaped pot stills that imparted a differed physical and chemical character (Yamazaki has as much as 24 stills). Diverse maturation and flavor profiles arising from the interaction between the distillate and the varieties of barrels while also taking into notice its interaction with temperature, humidity and the outside environment.
With time the number of distilleries have grown between eight and nine. But unfortunately customs have seldom changed.
#5. If they don’t share, do the Japanese blend?
Yes, the Japanese create their own whiskies (grain and/or malt) in the hundreds and blend a subset in various proportions to come with their specific blends. Some distilleries additionally import scotch and blend them with their own.
#6. Yeast – More the merrier ?!?
Unlike most distillers who employ only one type of yeast strain; the Japanese culture hundreds of such individual strains to facilitate varied levels of fermentation. They even go to great lengths in employing a large number of biochemists who specialise in the field of fermentation.
#7. The Americans and the Europeans aren’t the only ones – there’s a new player in town!
A lot of that charm and life in our whisky comes from the years of interaction the young spirit acquires with the wood it is comfortably housed in. Many distillers are now spending more resources and capital into this specific domain to bring out varied and yet unique flavors that would make them stand out. Previously, the choice of wood was restricted to either American or European Oak; and using these in a combination of virgin and/or previously filled barrels would help blenders come up with a concoction that they would agree upon and then send out for production.
American Oak for example is known for their vanilla, honey, coconut and ginger profile while European Oak lends a lot of sherry, dried fruits, nutmeg and cinnamon.
The Japanese too have their own indigenous oak – Mizunara; which is used in the manufacture of incense sticks. And for that very reason the wood imparts a sweet, floral and fruity character . Unfortunately it is quite porous in nature, which means it cannot be used to mature whisky for really long periods and hence are used in conjunction with other types of wood.
#8. Oak is not the only wood – bamboo too!!
Bamboo is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and is associated with innocence and purity and it was this amalgamation of local culture and traditional methods of making whisky that introduced charcoal’d bamboo filtration to several Japanese distillers, Suntory being one. This method mellows and purifies the ‘hard liquor’ while also adding a sweeter, more fruitier dimension to the spirit. The Hibiki – 12 YO is an expression from this type of filtration.
#9. The Japanese like it High!
The Highball-a mix of sparkling water, ice and whisky, is a cocktail most Japanese wouldn’t shrug off all that easily! So illustrious is the highball that they’re available in cans at the grocery stores and at vending machines near train stations and hotels. Mind you, don’t dismiss this to be any flat glass with all the three tossed, stirred and shaken- Grave mistake! If there’s one thing about the Japanese, there is only one way – the right way! And chances are most if not all serious bartenders would meticulously follow it to the ‘T’!
Hope the next time you pour yourself a glass of Japanese Whisky, you spend a moment or two pondering on the what, the hows and the whos that brought this elixir its very existence.