The art of Japanese whisky
While Japanese whisky celebrates its centenary in 2023, this year has given the whisky world the opportunity to reflect upon the different elements that make Japanese whisky such a success. Many would agree that their attention to detail and craftmanship is at the heart of Japan’s world-class whisky. This goes beyond just the liquid however, with a significant influence on the marketing and design of each and every release. As a nation, Japan has an incredible heritage of artisan ceramics, rich calligraphy and, more recently, world-famous successes in film, spanning from robot films to anime and beloved studio Ghibli dreamlands. The world of whisky has taken all of these elements into consideration, and the result is some of the world’s most sought-after whiskies, housed in beautiful bottles and decanters that showcase the very best of Japan’s artistry.
Studio Gibli, Adobe
As with whisky, Europe and Japan have had a slightly unexpected but fruitful artistic love affair, dating back to the late 19th century when Japan opened up to the world, and rapidly growing following the Second World War. Artists from across Europe were influenced by Japanese art from impressionism onwards, with Claude Monet and French impressionists taking inspiration from landscapes, Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession inspired with the heavy use of gold leaf or Johannes Larsen and the Danish Fynboerne Painters use of wood-based printing techniques. Conversely, tartan exploded on to the Japanese fashion scene following the Second World War, with Japanese artists and designers making the Scottish fabric very much their own.
Today, Japanese art is shared with Europe and America on the whisky bottles that are coveted by collectors worldwide. So, what Japanese design and styles might you find on your bottle? Read more to find out the history and meaning of the art surrounding many of the finest whisky releases coming out of Japan. Looking to remind yourself of the background of Japanese whisky? Read our Japanese Whisky 101 Guide here.
Wood, paper, glass and ceramics can all be chosen carefully to celebrate Japan’s heritage whilst presenting a whisky in the most unique way. Some of the best examples of Japanese ceramics in whisky must be The Hibiki 35 year old Arita and Kutani editions. In celebration of the 400th anniversary of porcelain arriving to Japan, Suntory commissioned traditional artisan porcelain makers on the island of Kyushu to create the bottles, each limited to just 150 decanters. Both feature butterflies and peony flowers, symbolising happiness, wealth and longevity, while exploring the differing Arita and Kutani styles of porcelain.
For wood and paper, it is necessary to take a look at Yamazaki. Their special Yamazaki Mizunara 2017 18 Year Old was housed in a Mizunara case, made from ex whisky barrels. The Mizunara wood is notoriously hard to work with for whisky makers, but offers a unique taste and provenance, linking Japanese whisky to the native trees of the island nation. The bottles were also labelled with Echizen cotton paper, a Japanese paper making technique dating back over 1,500 years.
Japanese calligraphy, also known as shodo or shuji, is an artistic way of writing the Japanese language. Originally based on Chinese letters, Japanese calligraphy has gone through various forms and phases, and learning the art to high standards is a challenging yet popular pastime in Japan. In many releases of Japanese whisky, calligraphy forms part of a simplistic yet beautiful label that honours this important pastime. Releases from Yamazaki and Karuizawa often feature prominent calligraphy in gold, black and beige colour tones, linking to traditional calligraphy on parchment with black ink and gold embellishment.
With their distinctive kimonos and painted faces, Geishas set fashion in Japan from the mid 18th century through to the Second World War, while also becoming a symbol of Japan to international visitors. As those setting trends, wearing beautiful clothing and often elaborate make-up, Geishas naturally became featured in Japanese artwork at the height of their popularity during the 19th century. As with many of Japan’s finest distilleries, the world of the Geisha was believed to be a lost one until a growing interest in their lifestyle and art saw a revived interest in the 21st century.
Suitably, as one of the most iconic images of Japan, they now feature as part of a range of whiskies from the lost distillery Karuizawa. The independent bottler, Elixir Distillers, has bottled a highly collectible series of Geisha Labels which vary in numbers, but a particular highlight is the Murasaki ‘Purple’ Geisha, of which there are only 60 bottles.
Fittingly for their age, younger Japanese distilleries such as Chichibu often focus on more recent Japanese heritage. With Japan experiencing a boom in cultural capital in the second half of the 20th century, Japanese film, anime and fashion has become recognisable and beloved across the world. Expressions such as Chichibu’s popular Intergalactic Editions, which features sci-fi themes of Robots, Space and Anime explore these trends, marrying modern Japan with modern, sometimes experimental Japanese whisky. Read more about ji-whisky and Chichibu here.
As stocks of well-aged Japanese whisky dwindles, the demand and price of high age statements or rare closed distilleries only increases. Teaming up with renowned artists in their fields is becoming a popular way to not only make whisky releases stand out, but to reach new audiences that cross passions for art and whisky. Warren Khong is an artist from Singapore who is well known in the spirits world for his art, having been introduced to creating whisky labels by La Masion du Whisky’s Marlene Leon. Since then, his work has been featured on spirits from closed distilleries such as Velier’s Last Drop releases and Karuizawa’s Artifices Series Warren Khong. Read more about Warren Khong in our interview here.
New distilleries such as Kanosuke, founded in 2017, are also embracing artist collaborations to engage new customers with their brand and establish a collector’s series. Their Artist Editions are inspired by the “Five Elements Philosophy”, which is deeply rooted in Japanese people's lives. The first two collaborations feature artwork from Mariko Hirasawa and Yuna Yagi.
Amoung collectors, Japanese whisky is incredibly popular: the number of bottles of Japanese whisky selling at our online auctions per year had risen exponentially from 316 in 2015 to 1,841 in 2022. Art and presentation undoubtedly plays a role in this, as Japanese whiskies represent a part of the country's unique heritage in both their liquide and design. Explore bottles in our monthly auctions, or contact us via the seller form if you have Japanese whisky waiting to find a new home.