When we think of malt whisky, we think of Scotland. Perhaps some people may associate Ireland, Canada and the United States with the word ‘whiskey’, but few would think of Japan as a major player in the whisky world.
Perhaps some of the reason we do not associate Japan with production of top level alcohol is to do with our preconceptions on Japanese culture and, more broadly, Asian culture. The various whiskey drinking stereotypes – the Scottish farmer, the American lumberjack and the dapper gentleman in the front bar of the hotel – are worlds apart from most people’s view of what Japanese culture is.
It might be startling to hear, then, that Japan is the second largest producer of malt whisky behind Scotland.
Japanese whisky is made with a focus on consistency, an excellent end-product and balance. It is extremely rare to find a bad batch of Japanese whisky. The consistency found in Japanese single malts is similar to the consistency found in common whisky blends such as Chivas Regal. This provides some assurance to the consumer and someone ordering an expensive glass of whisky at the bar, such as the Yamazaki 18 year old, can rest easy in knowing that the product will taste much like the one they had two years ago.
The stability of Japenese whisky is at least partly due to the stability of the Japanese whisky companies. Read the history of some Scottish whisky distilleries on this site and you will find tales of mismanagement, constant buying and selling and some fairly eccentric distilling practices. Japanese distilleries are run smoothly and businesslike. What results is the aforementioned consistency, but consumers do miss out on some quirky malts that Scotland puts out quite frequently.
Japanese whisky has become increasingly popular over the last 2 or 3 years. Suntory report that their exports to the United States have been growing at an astronomical rate. This is both due to the quality of the product and the ‘fad‘ element. Japanese whisky is popular at the moment, and popular products sell.
Describing The ‘Character’ of Japanese Whiskey
Trying to place a Japanese whisky in Scotland would put it somewhere around the Speyside region. Japanese malts are usually light and floral with fruit flavors. They are extremely smooth and not at all challenging to the palate like a Laphroaig offering might be. Frequently they are sherried and occasionally peated. They are not salty like an Islay Scotch, but rather a warm, indoor fire smoke. The rich earthy tones that appear in Scotch whisky are rarely found in Japanese whiskey. Oak and cereal do occur, however, such as in the Yamazaki 12.
What To Expect From Japanese Whiskey in the Future
It looks like Japanese whisky has a great future. Its popularity will continue to rise as long as it keeps producing consistent product. What may let it down is its price due to exportation if the novelty wears off for consumers in a few years time. As long as people enjoy smooth and easy drinking whisky, Japanese whiskey will have a prominent place in the world of whisky.