Japan has an incredible (yet relatively short!) story to tell in its history of distilling whisky. After a century of commercial distilling, Japan has gained a reputation for exceptional quality, with their coveted malt now considered as some of the best, and most collectible, produced anywhere in the world today.
Japanese whiskies have echoes reminiscent 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 increasingly sought-after.
The beginning of distilling in Japan
The history of Japanese whisky begins in 1854, when Commodore Perry illegally entered Tokyo (at that time Edo) Bay on behalf of American President Millard Fillmore to negotiate a treaty on the opening of trade relationships. At the time, Japan had been isolated from much of the outside world for nearly two centuries, as the isolationist foreign policy Sakoku prevented foreign nationals from entering Japan and the Japanese people from leaving.
To help with negotiations, Commodore Perry brought gifts including gallons of whisky, and this was perhaps the start of a flourishing relationship between Japan and the water of life. Japan soon officially opened its doors for business, and imports, including western spirits, started to arrive. Supply was short, but this inspired the Japanese people to try their hand at creating their own spirits - although none resembled the authenticity that was arriving from the West. It wasn't until the early 20th century that Japanese producers began importing stills from Germany and France to produce Shochu, but the domestic production of pure alcohol soon began to thrive.
Masataka and Rita Taketsuru
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 the Longmorn and Bo’Ness distilleries, where he recorded details about the entire process of Scotch whisky making. During his time 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 with the help of Professor Wilson from the Royal Technical College in Glasgow, Taketsuru secured a longer apprenticeship at Hazelburn distillery. Under the guidance of Peter Margach Innes, Taketsuru was able to explore all aspects of Scotch whisky production. The notes developed from his time spent here are now the blueprints for whisky making in Japan.
Meanwhile in Osaka, 20 year old Shinjiro Torii founded Torii Shotun (now Suntory). At this time Torii’s main focus and energy was 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.
Although it’s thought that whisky has been produced in Japan since the mid-19th century, the story of Japanese whisky as we know it today doesn’t begin until in 1923 with the founding of the Yamazaki distillery. Taketsuru returned to his homeland with his wife Rita, and together with Torii, soon assembled Japan’s first true whisky distillery in the town of Yamazaki. Taketsuru took inspiration from his time in Scotland and used this to create a spirit with similar qualities to that of Scotch whisky.
Yoichi distillery - Home of Nikka Whisky
Iconic Japanese Whisky Distilleries
Karuizawa was established in 1955 on the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Asama. Renowned for their intense, sherry cask matured drams using barley exclusively imported from Scotland (exclusively the Golden Promise varietal from 1994), and a water source which flowed through the volcanic lava rock, their whiskies soon became famed globally. Unfortunately, the distillery was mothballed in 2001, and was eventually dismantled with no chance of ever being revived. Like many famous artists, Karuizawa only achieved it's widespread renown after it's death, and as bottles slowly emerged in the market they soon became desirable collector's items. Karuizawa is now one of the world's most prestigious single malt whiskies, and as stocks continue to thin, demand continues to rise.
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. Yamazaki is considered Suntory’s flagship malt today, however, their limited editions and single cask releases are particularly popular and growing increasingly rare. In 2021, Suntory released the Yamazaki 55 Year Old which became the world's oldest Japanese whisky.
Hanyu had a very short lived production, with whisky distillation beginning in 1980 and only lasting until 2000. The distillery was dismantled four years later, however, luckily the remaining stocks were rescued by Ichiro Akuto, an heir to the original founder. In 2005, Ichiro created the Ichiro's Malt Card Series, a collection of bottlings from Hanyu's old stocks. Ichiro's Malt Card Series is a collection of single cask releases, all of which feature a distinguished label depicting a unique playing card motif. In 2021, a news announcement broke of Toa Shuzo's plans to rebuild the Hanyu distillery.
Yoichi is the distillery in which Masataka Taketsuru later founded 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!
Chichibu was founded in 2008 in Saitama, Japan as the brainchild of Ichiro Akuto, grandson of the founder of the legendary Hanyu distillery. It was the country’s first new distillery since Suntory opened Hakushu back in 1973, and has since gathered a reputation for quality. Read more about the ji-whisky movement and Chichibu in our article.
Rare Japanese Whisky Series for Collectors
Ichiro's Malt Card Series
Ichiro's Malt Card Series has become one of the most sought after whisky collections worldwide due to its exceptional rarity.
The full collection boasts 58 in total - six more than your standard playing card deck. This is because four of the single casks were bottled at small quantity in 2005, however, overwhelmed by the reception they received, Ichiro issued a second bottling of the remainder of these casks (this second bottling was matured for one year longer than the first). Therefore, there are double bottlings of the following cards: Ace of Spades, the Queen of Hearts, the King of Diamonds and the Jack of Clubs. With only 120 produced of each card in 2005, they make an incredibly treasured addition to any collection.
With each release featuring a unique design, and bottle numbers extremely limited, this series has become a true collector's piece.
Examples from Ichiro's Malt Card Series
Yoshitoshi Ghost Series
The 'Ghost Series' was launched in 2013 by Stefan Van Eycken, Japanese whisky expert and author of Whisky Rising: The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan. The collection features a selection of ten limited single cask Japanese whiskies from renowned Japanese distilleries, including the lost Karuizawa, Hanyu and Yamanashi. The labels all feature Yukiyo-e artwork from Yoshitoshi's New Forms of 36 Ghosts and are seldom seen for sale on the secondary market due to their rarity - release #6 for example consisted of 28 bottles, all of which were opened in Japanese whisky bars.
Most Expensive Japanese Whiskies on Whisky Auctioneer
Yamazaki 55 Year Old 2020 Release - £425,000
Yamazaki 50 Year Old - £150,000
Whisky Auctioneer regularly welcomes rare and collectible Japanese whisky expressions in our monthly auctions. Browse all past and present lots or contact us if you are interested in selling a bottle of Japanese whisky.