Japanese Whisky

Contributor: Luke Summers

Japanese flag

Setting the scene

Many people are unaware that Japan is the second largest producer of single malt whisky in the world after Scotland.

Home to rich natural resources and a long history of distillation expertise, Japan has all the right elements for producing world class whiskies.

Global recognition of Japanese whisky has been growing rapidly. Japanese whiskies are frequently winning highly coveted awards, such as the ‘World’s Best Single Malt Whisky’ and the ‘World’s Best Blended Whisky’.

An introduction to the whiskies of Japan

The Japanese whisky industry was pioneered in the 1920s by Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory; and Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka. Torii established Japan’s first whisky distillery in 1923, Yamazaki. Taketsuru was employed as the distiller at Yamazaki, but left to establish the Yoichi Distillery and later founded Nikka, rival company to Suntory.

The majority of Japanese whisky is produced by three large companies: Kirin, Nikka, and Suntory.

Unlike many whisky distilleries around the globe that focus on a particular style – most Japanese whisky distilleries produce a vast range of styles. This allows them to blend different malts from their own distillery to craft their product offerings, rather than sourcing malts from rival distilleries. This includes producing peated and unpeated whiskies and maturating whiskies in a range of cask types.

Japanese Whisky Distilleries

Chichibu Distillery

The distillery was established in 2007 by Ichiro Akuto. Ichiro Akuto is the grandson of Isouji Akuto, the original distiller from the Hanyu distillery which ceased production in 2000. Whisky stocks from the Hanyu Distillery were also labelled as ‘Chichibu’ or ‘Golden Horse’ at various times. Ichiro Akuto sold bottles of whisky from the closed Hanyu Distillery stock under the ‘Ichiro’s Malt’ label.

Chichibu Distillery is located in Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture, Honshu Island.

In discussions with local farmers, Chichibu are investigating the possibility of using locally grown barley in the future, with the intention of malting their own barley on site. Chichibu would also like to use locally available peat from the Saitama Prefecture for peating the malted barley.

The wash backs being used at Chichibu are quite unique, crafted from Japanese Oak.

‘Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu – The First’ was the first whisky to be released by the distillery, distilled in 2008 and bottled in 2011. ‘Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu – The Floor Malted’ was the second release, distilled in 2009 and bottled in 2012.

Chita Distillery

Chita Distillery is used exclusively for the production of grain spirits. The distillery is currently owned by Suntory Holdings Limited.

The grain spirit from Chita Distillery is used primarily for Suntory’s blended whiskies, such as the ‘Suntory Hibiki’ whiskies. However, the distillery has also released the ‘Suntory Chita Single Grain Whisky’, which won ‘World’s Best Japanese Grain Whisky’ in the 2009 World Whiskies Awards.

Chita Distillery is located in the Aichi Prefecture, South of Nagoya City, Honshu Island.

Fuji Gotemba Distillery

The distillery was established in 1973. The distillery is currently owned by Kirin Brewery Company Limited, which is owned by Kirin Holdings Company Limited.

Fuji Gotemba Distillery is located at the foot of Mount Fuji at an altitude of 620 metres above sea level. The distillery is in Gotemba City, Shizuoka Prefecture, Honshu Island.

The distillery is open to visitors and self-guided tours can be undertaken. Tours are free and whisky tasting is included. The distillery is located about 20 minutes taxi ride from the JR Gotemba station.

Hakushu

The distillery was established in 1973 by Keizo Saji. The distillery is currently owned by Suntory Holdings Limited.

Hakushu distillery is located in the Southern Japanese Alps, in the town of Hakushu, Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture, Honshu Island.

Hakushu is one of the most elevated whisky distilleries in the world at an altitude of 700 metres above sea level.

The distillery is open to visitors and public tours are conducted regularly (in Japanese only, english audio guide provided). Tours are free and whisky tasting is included. The distillery is located about 10 minutes taxi ride from the JR Kobuchizawa Station. Bookings are not usually required for tours, however if you wish to visit during busy times or have a large group, tours can be booked by phone on: +81-551-35-2211.

Karuizawa (no longer active)

Previously a winery, distillation first started on the site in 1956. The distillery ceased production in 2001 and after years of uncertainty, it is now clear that production won’t be resuming at the site. The aging whisky stocks were purchased by Number One Drinks Company in 2011. The distillery’s last owner was Mercian Corporation, which is owned by Kirin Holdings Company Limited.

Karuizawa Distillery was located in the Japanese Alps in the town of Miyota, Kitasaku District, Nagano Prefecture, Honshu Island. The distillery was located about 7 minutes walk from Miyota Station.

Unlike other Japanese whisky distilleries which typically produce a vast range of styles, Karuizawa focused on one style of whisky. Karuizawa whiskies are typically rich, robust and smokey. Karuizawa whiskies were produced using the richly flavoured ‘Golden Promise’ strain of barley and predominantly matured in Spanish ex-sherry casks.

In 1995 the site was converted into the Musee d’Art Mercian Karuizawa (Mercian Karuizawa Art Museum). Modern and contemporary European art was exhibited in the Museum, there was also a restaurant and shop. Tours of the mothballed distillery were also available to the public. The museum closed on 6 November 2011 and sadly the old distillery can no longer be viewed.

The Karuizawa whisky stocks purchased by Number One Drinks Company will be bottled and released while stocks last. The whisky stocks are being stored at the Chichibu distillery.

Miyagikyo (sometimes called Miyagikyou)

The distillery was established in 1969 by Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka. The distillery is currently owned by Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. Ltd, which is owned by Asahi Breweries Ltd.

Miyagikyo Distillery is located in Northern Japan, Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture, Northern Honshu (lat.38 N).

The distillery is open to visitors and public tours are conducted regularly (in Japanese only). Tours are free and whisky tasting is included. The distillery is located about 25 minutes walk from the JR Sakunami Station.

Miyashita Sake Brewery

Miyashita produces sake, shochu and beer. In preparation for their 100th anniversary in 2015, they decided to produce a Japanese whisky.

Whisky production commenced in June 2012. The whisky is made using a blend of malted barley from Germany and the Okayama Prefecture, Japan. The whisky will be matured for three years, allowing for a 2015 release.

Credit to WhiskyWall.com for the information.

Rainbow Distillery

The parent company ‘Aioi Unibio Co. Ltd’ produces sake, liqueurs and spirits, including whisky.

The whisky is labelled as ‘Rainbow Whisky’ and ’12 Year Old Special Blended Rainbow Sansyu Whisky’.

Shinshu (Shinshu Mars Distillery)

The distillery was founded in 1960 and is currently owned by Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.

Shinshu Distillery is located in Miyata village, Nagano Prefecture, Honshu Island.

The distillery recently resumed production (March 2011), having been on hiatus since 1992.

Now it is active, Shinshu is once again the highest whisky distillery in Japan at 2,600 feet above sea level. While Shinshu was out of action, Hakushu held the title of Japan’s highest whisky distillery.

Whisky previously produced at Shinshu is available for purchase in limited quantities, however it is often labelled under the name ‘Mars’. The first spirits produced since resuming operations in 2011 are still in maturation, so it will be a few years until any new whiskies are released.

The distillery is open to visitors and public tours can be taken between 9am and 4pm (holiday hours vary). The distillery is located about 10 minutes taxi ride from the JR Komagane Station.

White Oak (sometimes called Eigashima)

A licence to distill whisky was obtained by the company in 1919, but it is unknown when their first whisky was produced, how the spirit was made or what style resulted. The distillery is currently owned by Shuzo Co. Ltd (Eigashima Shuzo Co. Ltd), a company which dates back to 1888.

White Oak Distillery is located in Akashi City, Hyogo Prefecture, Honshu Island.

Previously focussed on cheaper, blended whiskies, White Oak is now offering single malt whiskies. ‘Akashi’, an 8 year old single malt was released in 2007 (4,500 bottles) and a 5 year old single malt whisky was released in 2010.

Yamazaki

Japan’s oldest distillery, Yamazaki was established in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory. The distillery is currently owned by Suntory Holdings Limited.

Yamazaki is located between the cities of Osaka and Kyoto in the Mishima District, Osaka Prefecture, Honshu Island.

The distillery is open to visitors and public tours are conducted regularly (in Japanese only, English audio guide provided). Tours are free and whisky tasting is included. The distillery is located about ten minutes walk from the JR Yamazaki Station. Bookings are not usually required for tours, however if you wish to visit during busy times or have a large group, tours can be booked by phone on: +81-075-962-1423.

Yoichi

The distillery was established in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka. The distillery is currently owned by Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. Ltd, which is owned by Asahi Breweries Ltd.

Yoichi Distillery is located on Japan’s Northern island of Hokkaido, 50 kilometres west of Sapporo City, in the Yoichi District of Southern Hokkaido (Lat.43 10’N.Lon.14045’E).

The distillery uses coal-fired pot stills, a method founder Taketsuru learned in Scotland. The use of coal-fired stills is now very rare in Scotland and Yoichi is the only whisky distillery in Japan to employ this traditional technique.

The distillery is open to visitors and self-guided tours can be undertaken. Tours are free and whisky tasting is included. The distillery is located about five minutes walk from the JR Yoichi Station. Bookings are not usually required for tours, however if you wish to visit during busy times or have a large group, tours can be booked by phone on: +81-135-23-3131.

 


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