Japanese whisky production
A trend that does not seem to be abating: Japanese whisky? This article explains the history, special features and of Japanese whiskies.has been enjoying ever-increasing popularity in recent years. For what was long considered a 'bad copy' of the Scottish , now occupies top positions in prizes and awards. But what is the difference between Japanese and Scotch
History of Japanese Whisky
How did it actually come about that whisky is produced in Japan? Distilled alcohol is nothing strange in this country. Sake and Shōchū (rice wine and brandy) have long been part of the culture. After a few unsuccessful attempts around 1870, whisky re-emerges with Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. Torii opened Japan's first whisky called Yamazaki in the 1920s. He hired Taketsuru as a , who had previously spent years in Scotland studying distilleries such as Lagavulin, Hazelburn and Craigellachie. This company becomes Suntory, one of the largest spirits groups in the world. When Taketsuru left the company, he founded Nikka, also one of the largest producers in Japan.
For a long time, Japanese distilleries were faced with a huge demand and had to produce quickly. Not much was left for export. And those that did make it to the international market were mostly cheaply produced bottlings that left a bad impression on . In the meantime, the consumption of whisky per inhabitant in Japan is higher than that in the USA or England.remained within the country's borders. This was because the distilled alcohol became increasingly popular, which meant that in the 1960s and 1970s the
It was not until the turn of the millennium, when whiskies of outstanding quality also made it across national borders, that demand grew. Not least because of the increasing number of awards. The highlight came in 2007 when two Japanese whiskies took first place in the 'World Whiskies Award'. The Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure 21 Years Old won 'World's Best Malt' and the Suntory Hibiki 30 Years Old won 'World's Best Blended'. From this point on, at the latest, Japanese whisky joined the ranks between Scotch single malt and .
Differences between Japanese and Scotch whisky
In the basic principle of production, the two types differ only slightly. Taketsuru brought the Scottish art of whisky to Japan. But here the process was refined and optimised. Another important point is the local conditions, in that the in Japan makes a big difference. It is much softer and milder than the Scottish water. Most of the distilleries are located in regions with a similar climate to Scotland. However, Japan is subject to a greater monthly temperature change than Scotland, which has a great influence on the and thus also on the . In the distilleries themselves, there is also a difference in positions. In Japan, the is the highest-ranking person in production and not the master distiller, as is often the case in Scotland. Here, the master distiller only has the function of producing the basic ingredients.
Another difference lies in the type of blends. While in Scotland more and more emphasis is placed on producing single malts (whisky whose distillate comes from only one ), the Japanese mostly produce blends. These, in turn, are not from the most diverse distilleries. They refrain from selling the distillate among the companies and thus to the competition. The blends are thus most often made from the distillery spirits of distilleries that belong to the same group. Large companies with many distilleries have an advantage because they can achieve more complexity. And it is not far-fetched for Japanese producers to buy in Scotland. A better-known case is the takeover of Jim Beam by Suntory.
Since April 2021, new regulations apply under which a whisky can only call itself Japanese whisky if it meets certain criteria. These are:
- Malted grain must be used as the raw material; other grain may be added.
- The water used must come from Japan.
- The production process from mashing to fermentation to distillation and the storage of the barrels must take place in a Japanese distillery.
- The maximum distillation volume is 95%.
- Japanese whisky must be stored for at least three years in wooden barrels with a maximum volume of 700 litres.
- When bottled, which must take place in Japan, the alcohol content of the whisky must not fall below 40% vol.
- Colouring with caramel (E150) is permitted.
→ More information here.
How is Japanese whisky made?
The production is, as already mentioned, very similar to Scottish. Here, too, the basic ingredients are water, grain and . The main part of a whisky's taste depends on how it is made. And this is as follows for Japanese whisky:
Malting the barley
While not only barley grain to become alcohol, the first step is to it. To do this, it is filled into vats with water at about 15° Celsius. The water is changed a few times during the process and oxygen is added, which accelerates the barley's absorption.is used in Japanese whiskies, it is still the largest ingredient. In order for the
The grains are then laid out on the ground where they water content of 45%. This is to ensure that the is broken down into sugars during and thus released. While the germinating barley is lying on the ' Floors', it is turned over again and again to ensure that all grains germinate evenly. In total, the barley germinates for between five and nine days.with a desired
After germination, the is dried (kilning). It is spread out on grates while still moist and dried from below with hot air. As we know it from Scotland, the fire over which the barley is dried may contain peat. The from a peat fire gives the barley, and thus later the , a smoky note. However, the use of peat is rather uncommon in Japanese distilleries. And if it is used, it is usually imported from Scotland.
The alcoholic fermentation (mashing & fermentation)
The dry malt is ground in the next step and filled into the with hot water. This is where the dissolved is supposed to separate from the grain. The malt is leached three times with different hot water. The sugar solution must be cooled to 20° Celsius so that the yeast cultures now added survive.
This mixture is filled into sugar contained in the liquid is converted into alcohol and by the yeast cultures. Two types of yeast are used in this process: The distiller's yeast and the surplus from ale productions. In Scotland, ale yeast is used less and less, but in Japan it remains part of the production. After 48 to 78 hours, a ' ' (wash) is produced, with an of 8-10%.and remains there for two to four days. This is where the alcohol is now produced: the
The burning (distillation)
The wash is now poured into the pot stills or . The traditional pot stills consist of a lower vessel containing the wash, which leads upwards into the and then into a tube ( ). The kettle is heated from below or inside. The boiling wash releases the alcohol via the vapour produced. The steam rises upwards into the neck, where it is captured. Via the Lyne Arm, the alcohol is discharged into the condenser, where it cools down and becomes liquid again. The respective shape of the pot stills has an influence on the taste of the whisky.
After a first distillation, the alcohol content has risen to 20-30%. During the subsequent, second distillation, the alcohol is now divided into parts. The usable alcohol (middlecut) is separated from the pre- and post-distillate. The finished distillate is called and has an alcohol content of about 70%.
Maturation in the barrel
Now the New Make is filled into barrels in which the whisky develops its flavour. A mixture of the distillate and a little water is put into the , which lowers the alcohol content to 63-64%, which is the optimal alcohol strength for maturing. In the cask, the changes during maturation to the golden brown we know from the finished bottles.
Depending on the length of maturation, the casks used, or the climate of the location, a wide variety of whiskies are produced. But what is the same in all of them is that the whisky reacts with the air and the wood of the barrel. The special climate in Japan creates a completely different, unique flavour. The master blender of the distillery decides how long the maturation period should be. However, since 2021, the time has been prescribed by law. For the whisky to be called Japanese , it must mature for at least three years.
Similar to their Scottish counterparts, barrels are usually used for the . But more and more local types of wood are being used, such as Mizunara oak or cherry tree (Sakura). Examples are The Matsui Mizunara or The Matsui Sakura Single Cask.
Blending & Bottling
To ensure that whiskies in a series always distillery's master blender different casks, even with different ages. Likewise, outside the series, the master blender creates balanced blends. Since each barrel is unique, the differences have to be balanced. In the process, it can happen that up to 40 different cask proportions come together. To ensure that the blends have the same colour, sugar caramel, also known as food colouring, is used.the same, the
After the whisky has been blended to the desired taste, it is bottled. In this process, the whisky can be bottled at , which means that it is not diluted. In this case, the is between 53-65%. However, it is more common to the whisky to 40-48%, also to get more bottles from one . However, the alcohol content must not fall below 40%.
The special whisky from the Far East
Whether Japanese whisky is better than Scotch is something everyone must decide for themselves. However, it is clear that the increasing popularity will not stop in the near future. It is definitely worth testing the whisky range from the island nation.
More information on Japanese whiskies:
See live the distillery:of Japanese whiskies. In this video we visited the Miyagikyo
What do Japanese whiskies taste like? In this video, we taste one of the Far Eastern whiskies:
Even more information is available in our huge database. Everything about Japanese, or the individual bottles: