Japanese whiskies have reminiscent echoes of Scottish craftsmanship, as they were inspired by Scotland's malt masters. Despite this, their whiskies remain distinctly innovative. In recent years, the popularity of Japanese whisky has sky-rocketed through high profile awards, and as closed distilleries remaining stocks dwindle, they are extremely sought after.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN...
The history of Japanese whisky is one of romanticised charm, which all begins in 1854. Commodore Perry arrived in Japan on behalf of American President Millard Fillmore to demand the opening of trade relationships. At this time Sakoku, the isolationist foreign policy, was active which prevented foreign nationals from entering Japan and the Japanese people from leaving for over 220 years. To help with negotiations, Commodore Perry brought gifts which included gallons of whisky – little did he know that this was the start of a flourishing relationship between Japan and the water of life.
Japan soon officially opened their doors for business, and imports such as whisky started to arrive. Supply was short, but this inspired the Japanese people to fool around with creating their own spirits, although none resembled the authenticity that was arriving from the West.
SHINJIRO TORII AND MASATAKA TAKETSURU...
In 1916, Settsu Shuzo (the leading producer of western liquor in Kansai, Japan) spotted a gap in the market and sent their employee, Masataka Taketsuru, to Scotland on a mission to uncover the art of Scottish whisky-making. In Scotland, Taketsuru participated in two short apprenticeships at Longmorn Distillery and Bo’Ness Distillery, where he painstakingly recorded details about the entire process of Scotch Whisky making. Whilst in Scotland, Taketsuru fell in love with Rita Cowan, the daughter of the family in which he was lodging, and they married in 1920. Once married, they moved to Campbeltown and Taketsuru secured a longer apprenticeship at Hazelburn Distillery. The notes developed from his time spent here, are now the blueprints for whisky making in Japan.
Meanwhile in Osaka, Shinjiro Torii founded Torii Shotun (now Suntory). At this time Torii’s main focus and energy was on selling port wine, although his great interest was in western liquor. He began selling his own ersatz “whiskies”, but soon realised that there was demand for authentic whisky distilled in Japan.
Taketsuru returned to his homeland with his wife Rita, and with his expertise in the Scottish mastery, they assembled Japan’s first whisky distillery – Yamazaki.
ICONIC JAPANESE DISTILLERIES...
Karuizawa was established in 1955 on the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Asama. Renowned for their intense, sherry cask matured drams using almost exclusively Golden Promise barley from Scotland, and a water source which flowed through the volcanic lava rock, their whiskies soon became famed globally. Unfortunately, the distillery was mothballed in 2001, with bottles slowly emerging in the market and becoming desirable collector's items.
Yamazaki was the first Japanese distillery and one of the first to win an international award for their whisky. The town of Yamazaki was chosen to be the site of Japan’s first commercial distillery due to its very ‘Scottish’ climate and with it being an area where three rivers converge. The first spirit ran from the stills in 1924, on 11th November at 11:11am. Their limited editions and Single Cask releases are particularly popular and growing increasingly rare.
Hanyu had a short lived production of their whisky started in the 1980s and ceased in 2000, with subsequent closure of the distillery in 2004. Luckily the remaining stocks were acquired by Ichiro Akuto, whose bottling series have been widely acclaimed and are much sought after, particularly his Ichiro's Malt 'Card' Series.
Yoichi is the distillery in which Masataka Taketsuru founded himself in 1934, and is the birthplace of Nikka Whisky. They are famous for insisting on coal-firing their stills (which are modelled on the ones from Longmorn Distillery), and spent a vast sum on a filter to reduce the environmental impact of doing so. The distillery felt that taking the cheaper option and switching to steam or electricity would have a detrimental effect on the character of their spirit, so maintained their coal-firing methods. Kudos!
You can view our previous Japanese Auction Highlights here.