Whisky regions

Did you know?

The Hakushu distillery in central Japan was once the largest whisky distillery in the world, with an annual production capacity of 12 million litres.

Did you know?

One of the best places online to discover more about Japanese whisky is nonjatta.blogspot.com. Their site is probably the most comprehensive sources on Japanese single malts for English speakers.

example whisky banner


Whisky map of Japan

There are many people who still do not realise that the Japanese produce their own single malt and blended whiskies. In fact, Japan is the world’s third largest producer of whisky behind the Scots and the Americans – yes, they beat the Irish. The popularity of Japanese whisky has grown to the wider international audience since a Japanese whisky first won a major award in 2001. Following this, Japanese whiskies have won two of the most prestigious prizes at the World Whisky Awards in 2008 – the Yoichi 20 years old won Best Single Malt and the Hibiki 30 years old won Best Blended Whisky. These were the first Japanese whiskies to win such a prize and the results sent shock waves around the whisky world.

History of Japanese whisky
Japan has a relatively short whisky making history when compared to Scotland, America or Ireland. It does, however, offer almost 90 years of history since the foundation of the first single malt distillery at Yamazaki in 1923. The early part of Japanese whisky’s history is largely the same as that of the Yamazaki distillery. Yamazaki’s founder, Shinjiro Torri sent one of his best students, Masetsaka Taketsuru, to Scotland after the end of the First World War and his mission was to gain as much information and experience about the Scottish whisky industry as possible. After almost three years in Scotland and working at numerous distilleries, Taketsuru returned to put his knowledge in to practice and build Yamazaki. He later went on to form Japan’s second whisky distillery at Yoichi in the 1930s.

The Japanese industry really boomed in the 1970s and early 1980s when sales of imported whisky were increasing massively. Numerous new distilleries were built and some sake distilleries and companies were also converted to making whisky, in order to meet demand. By the end of the 1980s, the whisky industry in Japan was struggling and a number of distilleries were closed. The main contributing factors blamed for the slump were the increasing cheapness and availability of imported whiskies from Scotland, Ireland and the USA combined with a hike in the Japanese alcohol taxes. This made the Japanese whiskies very expensive in comparison to overseas competitors and sales crashed.

Today the demand for Japanese whisky is growing again. This is mostly in the export markets as taxes still remain high and the Japanese market is flooded with cheaper foreign imported whiskies. Through the winning of major whisky awards, the reputation of Japanese whisky has grown and more people are drinking it than ever. Japanese whisky contributes to 5% of all worldwide whisky sales, meaning that of every 20 bottles of whisky sold then one is Japanese. This helps to sustain eight operating whisky distilleries, including the original Yamazaki and Chichibu – the first new distillery in Japan since the 1970s and which opened in 2008.

What is the difference?
Each distillery has its own style and method for distilling and maturing whisky, but most follow the traditional Scottish practices. Generalising is hard but here are a few facts about Japanese whisky ..
  • The whisky is normally distilled twice, as in Scotland, using pot stills.
  • Malted barley is mainly imported from Scotland. Some of it is peated. Australia also supplies barley. American oak/ bourbon casks are also imported from Scotland and America, as are sherry casks from Spain. Some whisky is matured in Japanese oak (called mizunara) that gives different flavours and characteristics.
  • The Japanese climate is more similar to the states of Kentucky and Tennessee in America, than those of Scotland or Ireland. This means that the summers are warm to hot while the winters are cold, making the extremes of temperature that the whisky experiences during maturation much greater.
  • Due to the different temperatures and climate, the whisky matures at a faster rate than in Scotland or Ireland. As in America, the whisky shows more wood influence as a result.
  • By using a bit of Japanese innovation, each distillery can produce a broader range of flavours and styles in their whisky. They achieve this by having different shapes of stills, using different types of yeast for fermentation, using mixes of barley and other grains and experimenting with cask maturation.
  • Japanese whisky companies do not share their stocks of whisky when producing a blend, unlike in Scotland or Ireland. Therefore, blends will only consist of whisky produced at a maximum of two distilleries.
  • Japanese whisky distilleries
  • Chichibu
    • −Japan’s newest distillery about 2 hours north west of Tokyo
  • Eigashima
    • − often known as ‘White Oak’ distillery, with separate still rooms for sake, shochu and whisky
  • Fuji-Gotemba
    • − lying at the foot of Mount Fuji, it is currently the world’s largest whisky distillery
  • Hakushu
    • − known as the 'forest distillery'. It is the highest and remotest distillery in Japan with a unique climate that is perfect for maturing whisky
  • Karuizawa
    • − the smallest whisky distillery in Japan which is located in a popular mountain resort
  • Miyagikyo
    • − originally named Sendei. Used in Nikka blended whisky, with recent single malt releases starting to gain recognition
  • Yamazaki
    • − Japan's first whisky distillery opened in 1923. It has the most popular visitor centre and a world famous bar
  • Yoichi
    • − Japan's most notherly distillery and the only one located on the island of Hokkaido