A Beginner’s Guide To Japanese Whisky — What To Know & Which Bottles To Buy

Life Writer
04.27.17 27 Comments

We love whisk(e)y. The brown spirit has blown up on the world stage over the last ten years. We’re lucky enough to live during the resurgence of America’s bourbon, Ireland’s triple distilled whiskeys, and Scotland’s single malts. Yet we have yet to really embraces two lesser known whiskies — Canadian and Japanese.

It’s the latter we’re going to take a dive into today:

THE HISTORY OF JAPANESE WHISKY

Japanese Whisky has deep roots in tea ceremonies, sake, and Scotland — but it all started with Shinjiro Torii and his drive to bring western style alcohol to Japan’s shores.

Torii founded an import company called Kotobukiya and was soon making good money importing international booze to Japan. But he quickly realized that the real profit and love of alcohol was in making it locally. He started with Akadama Port Wine, which was a smashing success — thanks in part to an ad campaign that featured Japan’s biggest opera singer posing semi-nude in a poster. This venture into producing local port convinced Torii that the Japanese had a palate and desire for their own versions of foreign alcohols so he turned his focus and capital towards making whisky. Enter Masataka Taketsuru.

Taketsuru’s family had been brewing up Sake near Hiroshima since 1733. As a young man, Masataka Taketsuru left Japan in late 1918 and moved to Scotland to study chemistry at the University of Glasgow and whisky at various distilleries around Scotland. The budding chemist and whisky distiller collected whisky making experiences during his years in Scotland like modern day travelers collect Instagram brags. The man was a sponge for science and information as he worked at the Longmorn distillery, the James Calder & Co.’s Bo’ness distillery, and the Hazelburn distillery. That gave Taketsuru an education in Speyside, Lowland, and Campbeltown whiskies, respectively.

Taketsuru returned to Japan in late 1920 with his Scottish wife (a union almost unheard of at that time) and promptly started working at Kotobukiya for Shinjiro Torii. Torii and Taketsuru opened Japan’s first malt whisky distillery in 1923, at the base of Mt. Tennozan near Kyoto. They’d call it the Yamazaki Distillery. Taketsuru was very exacting in the choice of the location: The distillery was surrounded by an ancient bamboo forest that would later help add a distinctly Japanese dimension to the product by using the bamboo to filter the whisky. Moreover the site was chosen specifically for its supremely high-quality water.

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