The story of Japanese whisky, says Noah May, Head of Wine & Spirits at Christie’s London, “is as complex, nuanced, and fascinating as any notable part of Japanese culture.” “In essence,” he says, “the story is one of science, craftsmanship, and nature. Of observing specific essential elements of Scottish distillation, and then taking these observations back to Japan and working in harmony with nature to craft something that references the oldest of whisky-making traditions but is also entirely new and unique.”
Japanese whisky has its own singular qualities but is stylistically akin to Scotch whisky, explains May. “Some are peated, others light and grassy or rich and sweet. But most are typified by a particular clarity of aroma and flavor, and a sense of purity and focus.”
Central to flavor is the length of aging and the type of wood used. While Scotch distilleries prefer repurposed bourbon barrels made from American or European oak in the form of sherry butts, most Japanese whiskies are matured in mizunara oak, a rare Japanese wood that grows in the forests of Hokkaido.
The story of Japanese Whisky is one of science, craftsmanship, and nature—Noah May
But what began more than a century ago has culminated today in some of the most highly prized bottles of whisky in the world, although it’s only been in the past 15 years, when demand began to outstrip supply, that Japan’s whisky boom period truly got started.
The Yamazaki distillery is one of Japan’s most iconic. It is also the oldest, established in 1923 by Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii. The Kyoto location, where the Uji and Kizu rivers converge, was specifically chosen for the purity and softness of its water. Though vastly different to any location in Scotland, the misty climate provides the perfect conditions for cask aging, today coined as the signature “Suntory Maturation.”
Yamazaki Whisky remains the distillery’s flagship single malt, praised for its multilayered and fruity flavor. Yamazaki 12 Year Old is its bestselling malt, but the legendary Yamazaki 50 Year Old is Japan’s rarest and most prized whisky. Only 150 bottles were ever released, vatted from unblended Suntory single malt whiskies. In November 2018, Christie’s sold a bottle at auction for £144,000/$184,752.
“The rarest Japanese whiskies have held value extremely well, partly due to the fact that many of them come from ‘silent stills’, or distilleries that are no longer producing spirits,” explains May. One of the most notable of these is the Karuizawa distillery, which opened in 1955 in Miyota, near to the active volcano Mount Asama. Its malt whiskies were made from Golden Promise barley imported from Scotland (the same used at Macallan at the time) and aged in sherry casks. Despite popularity for its thick and oily texture, sales in Japan dropped during the 1980s—partly due to new liquor tax laws and a preference for shochu—and production ceased in 2000.
Most Karuizawa bottles are now in the hands of private collectors and represent a significant investment. When a single bottle of the Karuizawa “Aqua of Life” 50 Year Old—one of only 248 ever released—went to auction at Christie’s Hong Kong in November 2019, it sold for HK$525,000/$67,434.
Hanyu in Chichibu was another distillery to fall foul of Japan’s whisky recession, and it too shut down in 2000. Its now highly coveted bottles only began to enjoy a resurgence as recently as 10 years ago, swelled by a global appreciation for aged Japanese whiskies. Akuto’s grandson Ichiro has since bought the 400 remaining casks and has continued the family whisky-making legacy as the Chichibu distillery, but it is the older Hanyu bottles where there is “very limited supply of the rarest bottles,” says May, that remain most appreciated.
Considering it was founded in 1934 by none other than Suntory’s first master distiller, Masataka Taketsuru, it is hardly surprising that Nikka has since risen to become Japan’s second largest distiller. It produces both single and blended malts that have been made to appeal to the Scottish palate, as opposed to the Japanese preference for softer notes and flavors.
The Taketsuru 35 Year Old is Nikka’s top-flight whisky, named after its producer. The oldest Nikka whisky available with a limited release of only 1,000 bottles, it contains rare blends from both Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries, and retails today for just shy of $8,000 per bottle.
The legends behind Legent Bourbon
In 2014, Suntory furthered its international reach by acquiring U.S. company Beam, maker of the world’s top Kentucky bourbon whiskey brand, Jim Beam. In existence for more than 200 years, Jim Beam is a barrel-aged American corn whiskey characterized by a subdued caramel flavor.
In 2019, the two giants launched their debut collaboration, Legent, the world’s first crossover between bourbon and Japanese whisky. Headed up by Fred Noe, great-grandson of Jim Beam and current master distiller, and Shinji Fukuyo, chief blender at the House of Suntory, the result is fruity and palatable, with depth and layers in the nose.
“Drawing on Shinji’s experience in blending Japanese whisky, we took the bourbon out of the bourbon barrels that we’d already aged and decided to try red wine barrels and sherry casks,” explains Noe. “The result is still ‘bourbon forward’ but, much like Japanese whisky, there are different layers to the aroma—you pick up dried fruits and sweetness. In short, Legent marries bourbon with the Japanese blending style.”
Banner image: Bottles of Japanese whisky at the Yamazaki Whisky Museum. Alamy