What’s So Special About Japanese Whisky?

A: It’s VERY Japanese.

Cars, computers, art and wagyu (and rugby), the Japanese are masters of refinement, taking something good and making it better. So, when it comes to whisky, we should really leave it to them, because they make some other varieties look like the questionable moonshine fermented by teenage amateurs in their parents’ garages. While Japanese distillers import their peaty, malty ingredients from Scotland, the Japanese distillation process itself really is worlds apart from any other. The Japanese just do it better, don’t they?


Japanese Whisky is Special Because: it Takes Time

Culturally, the Japanese are known for their reverence of nature, their cherry blossom festivals, and Zen Buddhism, their patience with the passage of time. They are masters of stillness and ritual, making them the perfect distillers of whisky — a spirit renowned for taking its sweet time to mature. Funny, that ‘still’ is in ‘distill.’

Japanese Whisky is Special Because: it’s a Mystical Process

Yamazaki distillery is the epitome of Japanese distilleries when it comes to the art form of the whisky-making process. The sense of mystery shrouding the complex, industrial fermentation ritual rises like the mists from three nearby rivers — the Katsura, Uji and Kizu — whose water is used in the distillation. It’s this rich landscape that animates Yamazaki whisky with a soul, attaching a spirit to the spirit (if you will).


Shinjiro Torii, the 1923 founder of Yamazaki, wanted to build the distillery in the fabled lands written about in the ancient texts and poems of the Man’yōshū; the lands that are home to famously pure mineral water. A water so pure and so potent, legend holds that the great tea master, Sen No Rikyu, was enchanted by its mythical powers when it passed his lips — perfect, then, for otherworldly whisky recipes. The Japanese whisky distillation process is imbued with a certain mysticism, a sense of magic breathed into the liquor by the land it’s matured on and the water that feeds it; the humidity, the misty forests breathing clear air at the foot of the mountains. The creative process is a product of the land and the Japanese’s spiritual connection to it.


Japanese Whisky is Special Because: the Demand is High

Ah, the age-old theory of supply and demand, something that can be applied to dating prospects when you finally hit the big 30; the supply of eligible marriage material dwindles as the demand for people you’d actively introduce to your parents soars. It’s also relevant where Japanese whisky is concerned. So popular are the likes of Hikbiki, Chichibu, Akashi, Hakushu, that the country simply cannot churn them out fast enough. This is partly due to the Japanese art of malt maturation. As with all good things, they take time, and the Japanese are not corner-cutters.

Japanese Whisky is Special Because: the Wood is Mythical

Japanese distilleries use special wood in their whisky-making processes. Some import aged bourbon barrels while others craft ageing barrels from the oaky wood of the native Mizunara, a sacred tree found only in Japan that imbues the liquid gold with a distinctive, unmatched flavour profile; a complexity of sweet spices, sandalwood, vanilla and Japanese Kara incense. Smoky and sublime. Mizunara wood is so desirable right now that it can cost ten times the amount you’d expect to pay for a standard sherry cask. Two hundred years is how long it takes for the Japanese Mizunara tree to grow to the dimensions necessary for maturation vessels, before you can cut and shape the wood into whisky casks.


Japanese Whisky is Special Because: It’s an Art Form

When a meal is made with love, you can taste it. The same can be said of any creative process. When it is rooted in deep emotion, it’s palpable in the finished product. Jim Meehan, a mixology expert and manager of PDT says that “Japanese whiskies show a lot of restraint, a lot of elegance, a lot of technical attention to detail,” all of which takes its sweet time to get right. While Scotch whiskies aim to taste as they always have, Japanese whiskies strive for constant improvement, constant refinement. The distillation process is a methodical, meticulous ritual. There’s something spiritual about the long gestation period of whisky, the element of self-discipline, and the promise of good things to come of it. If whisky were made this way in ancient times, they’d have called it alchemy.


Japanese Whisky is Special Because: of the Weather

Some distilleries up in the mountainous regions of Osaka and Kyoto oscillate between such extreme differences in temperature — bone-cold in winter and fire-hot in summer — that the maturation process of the whisky is elevated, and the temperature fluctuation impacts the flavours. This, among other things, is what makes Japanese whisky so popular. There’s a sort of romance to the deep connection between the natural world and the golden-brown spirit. It’s beautiful in a way that would’ve inspired the old Romantic poets — in fact, I’m sure that Wordsworth would have had a lot to say on the lush green forests and snowy peaks that Japanese whisky calls home.