From ridicule to renown: the story of Japanese whisky

How to tell your Yamazaki from your Hakushi and Hibiki: what makes each Suntory whisky special, and diferent from scotch

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 9:07pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 October, 2015, 12:52pm

When I think of single malts and whisky, the image that comes to mind is of brawny men in kilts pushing barrels about in a cellar.

But Japan, with its meticulous attention to detail in all things, is the home of the award-winning Suntory whisky, which dates its humble beginnings to 1918 when Shinjiro Torii invested his family fortune in building Japan's first whisky distillery in the Yamazaki region just outside Kyoto.

Yamazaki is considered the source of the purest water in Japan; it is where three rivers meet - the Katsura, Uji and Kizu. Torii, after his travels through Scotland, thought the misty climate of that region would be ideally suited for whisky.

Many believed he was mad to do so and the naysayers were almost proved right when his first whisky, Suntory Shirofuda, sadly failed.

It was a lesson well learned as Torii realised that his whisky did not appeal to the Japanese palate. He figured out that rather than recreating what the Scots had been doing for hundreds of years, he had to draw upon the essence of what Japan does best - a meticulous respect for each ingredient and pure undivided attention to the process.

His next whisky, Kakubin (it means "square bottle"), was launched in 1937, and has been a bestseller ever since. It is a blended whisky with a slightly sweet, smoky vanilla aroma with an enticing palate of biscuit and mild spice. The Kabukin Highball - whisky with soda - is a classic Japanese aperitif.

The 1950s were boom years in Japan and witnessed the opening of Suntory bars throughout the urban centres. It proved an ideal way to promote the image of whisky as part of modern life.

In the '70s, a more genteel way of drinking whisky was promoted. Mizuwari - the practice of mixing whisky with water as well as pairing it with food - saw the spirit more widely integrated into Japanese life.

This decade also saw Torii's son, Keizo Saji, further the vision of his father with construction of another distillery - Hakushu. Surrounded by forest, it is one of the highest distilleries in the world.

Today, the three best known Suntory whiskies are: The Yamazaki (first released in 1984); Hibiki (started in 1989); and The Hakushu (1994).

The Yamazaki comes in four versions - Distiller's Reserve, and 12-, 18- and 25-year-old bottlings. It is Suntory's flagship whisky with its distinctive aromas of mizunara (Japanese oak) and stone fruits with hints of cinnamon.

Hibiki is considered to be kanzen (harmonious). It is a blend of many different malts and grain whiskies, all of which are carefully aged in mizunara. The style of the nose and palate is more floral, with delicate hints of hibiscus, white pepper and a mix of tree fruits. It is released as Japanese Harmony, and in 12-, 17-, 21- and 30-year-old versions.

The Hakushu is made from the waters of Mount Kaikomagatake, in a mountain range considered the alps of Japan. The water (designated as among Japan's most precious) is incredibly pure, as it is filtered through millennia-old granite rocks. It is a smoky style of whisky that has green and fresh herbal notes, inspired by the single malts of Islay in Scotland. It is released in Distiller's Reserve, and 12-, 18- and 25-year-old versions.

The essential difference between the classic whiskies of Scotland and those of Suntory is the type of barrels used for the ageing process. Single malts from Scotland are aged in a wide array of barrels - mostly made of French or American oak that were previously used to age sherry or Kentucky bourbon. Why? Because these libations were shipped in the barrel and once their contents were enjoyed, it made more sense to sell them rather than ship them back empty to their place of origin. The resulting single malts picked up the residual flavourings and essences from the barrels, which added character to their respective flavour profiles.

The whiskies of Suntory have a distinctively Japanese touch, as only mizunara is used to age them, with the exception of The Hakushu 25 Year Old, which sees a bit of hinoki, the rare and sacred Japanese cypress tree. Because these barrels see no other influences, unlike those used for Scotland's single malts, the resulting Japanese whiskies are a harmonious reflection of the place they're from, with a purity of the sum of the ingredients and the skill of the artisans at Suntory.

The brand has come a long way since 1929, when the first bottles were released, only to be rejected by the Japanese public. In 1997, the company was purchased by The Macallan.

Suntory whisky has received many accolades, giving the Scots a run for their money. The biggest this year has been the induction into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame of Seiichi Koshimizu, Suntory's chief blender, the first Japanese recipient.