The 16 pot stills that produce whisky at the cavernous Suntory Yamazaki distillery, not far from Osaka, have one thing in common: They’re all made of copper.
Otherwise, the place looks like a tag sale. Some stills are larger than others; some have bulbous attachments at the top, others don’t. They each have a funnel-like copper attachment that extends upward — it’s called a swan’s neck, and it determines the flow and content of the alcohol vapors — yet these are of varying widths, and they all bend at varying angles.
This randomness at first seems strange. Modern distilling is about streamlining and efficiency, of producing a consistent product with consistent equipment. Macallan, the Scottish whisky maker, last year opened a $186 million, state-of-the-art scotch distillery with 36 massive and largely identical stills. Patrón tequila in Mexico has a similar operation.
Yet the Yamazaki distillery appears willfully inefficient. It’s as if, in the age of the assembly line, they’ve opted to hire individual craftsman to hand-tool their products.
Which is exactly the point, says Mike Miyamoto, Suntory’s global brand ambassador. Japanese whisky, he says, reflects Japanese craftsmanship.
Japanese whisky took root in the late 19th century. But in American markets it’s been mostly a curiosity until the last two decades. It made a splash in 2001, when Nikka’s 10-Year-Old Single Cask Yoichi was named “best of the best” by Whisky Magazine. In 2003, the movie Lost in Translation was released; it won an Academy Award for its screenplay, and it drew attention to Japanese whisky — thanks to the Bill Murray character who, in the film’s story line, is hired to make whisky ads. Further recognition of Japanese whisky followed, including Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 being named world’s best whisky by the Whisky Bible in 2015.
Sensibly, American (and European) consumers have started to pay attention. Exports of Japanese whisky to the United States surged 1,000 percent over one five-year period. And in recent years, consumer demand has led to shortages of the most sought-after, long-aged expressions. The mania for Japanese whisky — and subsequent shortages — is not unlike what’s happened with high-end bourbons in recent years.
The two biggest producers of Japanese whiskies are Suntory (which makes Suntory Whisky Toki, Hakushu, Hibiki and Yamazaki whiskies), and Nikka (which makes Nikka from the Barrel, Yoichi, Miyagikyo and Taketsuru). While the two are fiercely competitive, they share a common origin, which dates back to the 1920s.
Japanese whisky began, improbably enough, with port wine. A young pharmaceutical salesman named Shinjiro Torii saw that Japan was developing a fascination with all things Western (music, fashion, architecture), and he chose to produce his own port, a European specialty. It was a hit; not long after he turned his attention to whisky, and in 1923 built a distillery in the town of Yamazaki, drawn in part by the abundant and tasty local spring water.
Shinjiro hired a young distiller named Masataka Taketsuru, who had spent considerable time in Scotland learning the art of whisky-making from masters at famed distilleries. Masataka opted to make a Scottish-style whisky, using barley malt imported from Scotland (and embracing the spelling of whisky without an “e”). Scotch is the closest cousin to Japanese whisky, and may seem only distantly related to American rye or bourbon.
Over time, Shinjiro and his distiller Masataka diverged in their vision for Japanese whisky. Masataka preferred to adhere to the approach he learned in Scotland, and pushed for a smokier, denser flavor. Shinjiro didn’t think the Japanese market was ready for that, preferring a lighter, cleaner whisky. The two eventually parted ways, and Masataka established his own distillery that eventually became Nikka.
The craftsmanship behind Japanese whisky is most evident in the stillhouse. The shape and size of a still has a lot of influence on the taste of the spirit that emerges from it. A swan’s neck with a sharper angle will block some of the heavier flavors from passing through; those with a flatter profile tend to result in a more full-bodied distillate. Suntory wants both flavors — essentially creating a broad palette from which a master blender can craft richer, more complicated flavors.
Further increasing depth of flavor, Suntory opts to age a small percentage of its spirit in rarer, more expensive casks made of Japanese mizunara oak. The mizunara casks bring a subtle spiciness to the whisky, with a rye-like tang and an ethereal taste that’s been aptly described as “Japanese incense.”
Suntory is the largest producer of whisky in Japan and has about a million barrels aging in its warehouses. Most of these are used bourbon barrels made of American oak. But in addition to the mizunara oak and the bourbon barrels, Suntory also ages some whisky in casks that formerly held Spanish sherry, adding a deeper flavor that some compare to raisins — and mimicking an approach long taken in Scotland. Yet Suntory diverges from Scotland in that it employs a modern, steel-rack storage system, which allows easier access — making it easier to select and blend individual barrels for just the right flavor profile. It’s like using a small watercolor brush rather than a wide house-painting brush.
Japanese whisky appeals to those who prefer the lighter, less smoky scotches. Suntory’s Toki whisky makes for a good entry-level Japanese whisky — it’s lighter and has an appealing touch of fruitiness as well. The Hibiki and Hakushu bottlings — as well as most Nikka whiskies — are denser with flavor, more like a long-aged scotch.
Like they do with scotch, aficionados of Japanese whisky often sip the long-aged product neat, or with an ice cube or two. Until recently, Japanese marketing campaigns encouraged consumers to enjoy Hibiki and other fine whiskey in highballs — that is, to mix it with a little club soda and serve it on ice. Highballs may well be the national cocktail of Japan — bars have machines that dole them out quickly, chilled and mixed in perfect proportions. Pre-mixed highballs are widely sold in cans throughout Japan, and you can see salarymen sipping them in bars and on commuter trains.
As demand for aged whisky has swelled and supplies have diminished, consumers have been switching to lighter, easier-to-find whiskies, such as Suntory Whisky Toki, in their highballs. “Toki can work with any style of drink,” says brand ambassador Miyamoto, “but especially in highballs.”
Japanese whisky has a koan-like quality: It’s new. Also, it’s old. That is, it’s relatively new to the American market, but has been made for nearly a century. It was inspired by scotch, but over time has taken the traditional approaches of the West and added elements of the East, resulting in a product that offers the best of two worlds.
Those who enjoy sampling a range of whiskey — scotch from the Highlands, Speyside and Islay; bourbon from Kentucky and beyond — have a new adventure awaiting