A good whisky comes from Scotland. Especially if it’s a single malt ggoes the old adage. But this unwritten law wobbled and fell apart thanks to Japanese distillates. Once called exotics, they’re getting rid of more and more prizes at competitions and blind tastings – setting trends. Now the top position is endangered.
“For relaxing times – make it Suntory time!” This advertising slogan, which Bill Murray presents in a very quiet and professional manner in the much-acclaimed Hollywood film “Lost In Translation”, is a classic today – as is the film itself. Scarlett Johansson thus achieved an international breakthrough in 2003. The film is also considered the starting point for the worldwide triumph of Japanese whisky.”The film was the starting point for the interest in Japanese whisky in this country,” confirms Eugen Kasparek, whisky expert and “Master of Tasting” at whisky & Cigars. “However, the interest in Japanese distillates only became really big – almost explosive – when the whiskies from the Land of the Rising Sun won important Scottish competitions and blind tastings.” The fateful year is 2008. Nikka Yoichi, 20 years old, was named the “Best Single Malt whisky in the World” by the highly respected British “whisky Magazine”. More than 200 competitors leaves the Japanese behind. A national disgrace for the Scottish “motherland of whisky” .
Since then, Japanese whiskies have regularly priced, such as the Yamazaki, 12 years old, at the “San Francisco World Spirits” 2009 (Double Gold). Your marginal existence in the international spirits business is over. “Among connoisseurs, Japan is no longer an exotic whisky country,” emphasizes Kasparek. “Japanese whiskies are very important, not least because large Japanese companies have been shopping in the Scottish whisky landscape since the mid-1980s.”
Suntory and Nikka whiskies dominate the market
We are talking about this Suntory from “Lost in Translation” (owners of the brands Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch) and Nikka (Ben Nevis), which belong to the Asahi Brewery Group. These two companies are the largest whisky producers in Japan. For a few years, the otherwise otherwise known for his beer mixes Kirin Group in concert with the big ones.
In total, there are eight distilleries in Japan owned by five owners: Yamazaki (Suntory) located between Osaka and Kyoto on Honshu, Hakushu (Suntory) with the two distilleries Hakushu East and Hakushu West in Yamanashi Prefecture on Honshu Island, Yoichi (Nikka ) on Hokkaido Island, Miyagikyo (Nikka) near Sendai, Karuizawa (Kirin) in Nagano Prefecture, Fuji-Gotemba (Kirin) in Shizuoka Prefecture, and Chichibu (Venture whisky) in Saitama Prefecture and White Oak (Eigashima Shuzo) the island Honshu. whisky expert Kasparek, who has about 20 to 25 Japanese whiskies on whisky & Cigars, compares: “In Scotland, there are currently about 120 distilleries including the closed ones.”
The most famous Japanese brands are Yamazaki and Nikka. They knows not only the whisky connoisseur, but also the beginner. The history of Japanese whisky, on the other hand, is almost unknown – although whisky has been produced in Japan for almost 100 years. Japan is already experiencing its first contact with the “water of life” as early as the mid-19th century, when a US Fleet Commander sails to Japan to conclude a trade agreement. As a guest gift: a whole barrel and more than 100 gallons of whisky. In the First World War, the Japanese “retaliate” in a sense: When US President Woodrow Wilson sends troops to Siberia to secure Allied war equipment there, a convoy needs to pick up coal in the Japanese city of Hakodate. The sailors get free and move into the bars of the city. There they will be served a “Scotch whisky made in Japan”. After a few sips and minutes, the whole squad is drunk. The Japanese Lebenswasser brings it to whopping 86 percent by volume.
Two names, a rivalry
After the First World War, Japanese young Masataka Taketsuru went to Scotland in 1919 to learn the art of whisky-making. He marries a native and returns to his homeland in 1923 when Shinjiro Torii, the later Suntory founder, introduces him. The Yamazaki distillery is being built. Torii, businessman through and through, wants to build the distillery as close as possible to Kyoto. Taketsuru prefers a landscape not quite dissimilar to the Scottish landscape on the island of Hokkaido, in the north of Japan. Torii prevails. Some years later, Taketsuru leaves the factory.
He builds on Hokkaido the distillery Yoichi, named after the place in which it stands. While Toriis company becomes Suntory, goes back to Taketsuru Nikka, which was acquired by Asahi Breweries in the 1950s. Suntory and Nikka dominate Japan’s whisky business and are still not green. Healthy competition, where both companies have grown. “It has become clear that the Nikka distillates are based strongly on their Scottish models, while the distillates of Suntory such as Yamazaki are optimally adapted to consume them to Japanese food,” explains “Master of Tasting” Kasparek.
Many whisky peculiarities and a flaw
He makes several peculiarities of Japanese whisky: Some of the whiskies, for example, completely matured in barrels of Japanese oak. “These were previously sake barrels,” says Kasparek and continues. “Another special feature is the exorbitantly good quality of the sherry distillates, so the whiskies that have matured in sherry casks for several years.” Especially these whiskies are the “big winners in the game”, which means: Especially these are what the international prospect and connoisseur is asking for. “Another peculiarity is the typical Japanese elegance that is reflected in the country’s whiskies.”
However, despite all success, Japan’s whisky currently also has a flaw: Fukushima. “The environmental catastrophe is destroying Japanese distillates,” Kasparek points out. Some Japanese whiskies should not be introduced anymore. “These include distillates from the Miyagikyo distillery,” says Kasparek. Of course, the limited supply has an impact on prices: “Consumers need to dig deeper for Japanese whisky.”
The connoisseurs of Japanese whiskies, according to Kasparek, do not have to worry yet. On the one hand, there are official statements by the Japanese about their safety, even though they have to be careful. On the other hand, the European importers investigated the supplied distillates for radioactive substances such as iodine 131, cesium 134 and 137. “The measured values have always been in the norm,” says Kasparek. The real problem – also for the current success of Japanese whisky worldwide – is that no one can predict the development in the coming years: “The effects of the Fukushima disaster will be felt for a very long time.”