In barely a century, Japan has managed to position itself not only as a nation of master whisky makers, but its true innovators. That’s somewhat remarkable considering the Scots have been tinkering and working at it for at least half a millennium or so (sit down, Ireland, no one asked you). It’s also an impressive feat when you consider that attempts at recreating Scottish culture usually go as far as impressions that all sound like Mrs. Doubtfire.
It could be argued that Japan is less beholden to tradition and whisky makers are somewhat freer to innovate and fail, if needs be, without the weight of historical expectation on them. Well, that’s what Scotland’s whisky giants will probably tell you when you ask them why the two premiere producers of Japanese whisky – Suntory and Nikka – have largely been running away with the top accolades in the World Whisky Awards for years now.
In reality, Japanese whisky has become such a force as a result of a mentality forged throughout the collective conscience of the country as Japan embraced modernity: Wakon Yosai, or: Western technology, Japanese spirit. Imbued with the heart, soul and passion of the Scots (and often using their barrels), married with Japanese perfectionism and attention to detail, drams like the Yamakazi Distiller’s Reserve and Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky are two of the most affordable, yet premium-tasting whiskies on the market (you can get a bottle of either for under HK$500 if you know where to look).
So how did this happen? In precariously short terms. In the early 1900s, a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru hopped the boat to bonnie Scotland to learn the trade, attending the University of Glasgow and finding work at a handful of Scottish distilleries. During his time there, Taketsuru recorded every aspect of the distilling process. His work alone laid the entire foundation of the Japanese whisky industry as he went on to help form Suntory upon his return in Japan. Then, in 1934, he would go independent and launch his own distillery – Nikka. Just like that, you have, to this day, the two most prominent producers in the country – and one of the fiercest rivalries.
The incredible global boom for Japanese whisky – it’s becoming almost impossible to get a bottle of the Yamakazi 12-Year-Old – is shortsightedly looked upon as an ego-driven competition from many Scottish producers and advocates, licking their wounds as the new kids on the block force them from apathy. The great news for everyone else is that the bar has been raised in terms of making incredibly complex whisky affordable, stylish and intuitive, even for the layman. As such, we find ourselves in the midst of glorious experimentation and innovation in how whisky is made as the top producers vie for the crown of best in the world. Long may it continue.
For boozy books check out our bartenders’ picks of their favourite cocktail books and then once you’ve had fun with that you’ll need their foolproof hangover cures.