A History of Whisky in Japan

By Odigo Contributor PATRICK ST. MICHEL

Booms in Japan come and go, with a lot of huge trends picked up by media abroad being just that -- trends, doomed to flutter away after a brief time towering over all. A cursory glance at the Japanese whiskey industry could -- could -- lead one to think the drink is “in” at the moment, as recently a Japanese blend, "Yamazaki Single Malt" was chosen as the “world’s best whiskey” by Whisky Bible, and a popular Japanese TV drama focused on the beverage too. 
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Suntory Whisky Lanterns by Andrew under CC License https://www.flickr.com/photos/scratch_n_sniff/8401284068/[/caption]
The reality is, Japanese whiskey is less a one-and-done trend but rather a slow-burning industry with a long history that is finally getting the extra attention that it deserved much earlier.
The Japanese have been making whiskey since the late 1800s, though the first commercial offerings didn’t come into existence until the 1920s. Early Japanese distillers aimed to replicate the style of Scottish whiskey (or “whisky,” as they spell it in Japan and Scotland) as faithfully as they could, down to building actual distilleries in locations boasting a similar climate to Scotland. 
Many whiskey brewers emerged, but two companies tower over the field -- Suntory and Nikka. The former, in existence since 1899 also brew up all sorts of other drinks. Suntory made waves in the whiskey industry when they acquired Beam Inc. in 2014, (best known for making the Jim Beam brand.) Nikka is no slouch either, offering up a wide variety of whiskies and, like Suntory, being a staple of almost every liquor store and convenience store in the nation.
Whisky Warehouse by Toukou Sousui under CC License https://www.flickr.com/photos/sousui/8990940714/
That pair might be the titans in the game, but plenty of smaller whiskey distilleries exist and more have been showing up in recent years as interest in Japanese whiskey continues to grow. This rise in new whiskey makers also means old ideas about the nation’s industry are changing. Although plenty still try to recreate the taste and characteristics of Scottish malts, the growth of the industry has opened up as more styles and tastes are emerging in the market. The Japanese whiskey scene is now a different beast, and their are a lot of new offers to try.
Thankfully, there are also plenty of bars in Tokyo and beyond catering to whiskey aficionados...and those wading into the malty waters for the first time. Wander around any business-centric district in the capital -- the type of neighborhood teeming with folks wearing suits on the daily -- and you’ll see plenty of watering holes devoted to whiskey, especially the classic go-to highball. Some are of the quick stop-in-and-grab-one-drink-for-the-road variety while others feature hundreds of Japanese whiskeys, making them a good place to discover something new (and potentially rare).
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Japanese Whisky via Flickr.com under CC License https://www.flickr.com/photos/jitbag/14959100190/[/caption]
That is ultimately a sign that this isn’t the latest cool trend breezing through the capital. The Japanese whiskey scene isn’t just full of great drinks...though it certainly has that too, and a lot of them...but just as many people passionate about whiskey, who want to create the best drink they can or share their favorites with other fans. You might hear more about Japanese whiskey nowadays, but don’t expect it to go away soon.
Fancy a dram or two after a day of touring? Or perhaps you're looking for a place to relax after a busy week. Check out Patrick's trip below!

Patrick St. Michel