Japanese Whiskeys: Contender To The Throne

The Japanese are giving the Scots a run for their money – at least in the world of whiskey. Long  known to be the king of the grand amber liquid, Scotland’s next greatest rival to this largely uncontested title has quite a bit of history behind it – a history lesson that online culinary school students could learn a lot from.

Whiskey as its known today was produced largely by the Irish and Scottish when the art of distillation reached the region in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was prepared and used in religious circles by the name aquavitae, but became available for mass consumption once medical professionals began using it in their practices. The distilleries at that time exported large amounts of whiskey to England and Europe, eventually reaching the islands of Japan.

Two of the most prominent figures in the history of Japanese whiskies are Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torri. Shinjiro founded the Suntory distillery – the very first whiskey distillery in Japan – in 1923. He had owned a successful wine company before and risked all his company’s assets to pursue his dream of making a whiskey that was made for his countrymen, by his countrymen. Until Suntory was created, whiskey was a rare imported commodity in Japan that only the wealthy class could enjoy.  Shinjiro had made a name for himself in the whiskey market, but required someone who had an expertise of the brewing and distillation process unique to whiskey. This is when he met Masataka Taketsuru.

Before he and Shinjiro crossed paths, Masataka bravely ventured across the ocean to Scotland in 1919, where he studied organic chemistry while working at distilleries and learning the art of Scottish whiskey making. When he returned to Japan in 1923, he found work at Torri’s Yamazaki distillery and quickly rose through the ranks to lead the company’s distillery team comprised of a chief technician, head mechanic and an office manager. A few years later, Masataka left the distillery to produce his own brand of Japanese whiskey.

Types of Japanese whiskey
The oldest and most popular whiskeys come from these two men – Shinjiro’s Yamazaki brand and Nikka made by Masataka. They both offer a variety of blended and single malt whiskeys that range from smoky and peaty to fruity – almost a wine-like palette.

  • Suntory’s Yamazaki single malt is light and fruity at first, then deepens into a heavier malt flavor with hints of spices absorbed from the barrel it was aged in.
  • Suntory Hibiki 12 is sweet and lightly peaty, with hints of citrus and ginger that dissipate into a smoky aftertaste.
  • Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 has a heavier body than other Japanese whiskeys but does not overpower the palette. Discover a blend of apples, honey and wood spices with this one.
  • Nikka Yoichi Single Malt 15 is nutty and flowery, with an intensely evolving finish into spicy and sweet.

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