Why the world is falling for Japanese whisky
If you know, you know. And if you don’t, we’re here to tell you: world-class Japanese whisky is where it’s at
Calling all whisky lovers! Sure, most spirit enthusiasts know that whisky originated in 15th-century Scotland, but only true connoisseurs will tell you that some of the world’s best whiskies are, in fact, made in Japan. Here’s why you need to discover the world of Japanese whisky for your next tasting.
Japanese whisky was born out of passion
It all started with Masataka Taketsuru, the son of a prominent sake producer, who set his sights on expanding Japan’s proverbial liquor cabinet and ultimately became the founding father of Japanese whisky. Having enrolled in chemistry at the University of Glasgow, Masataka set sail for Scotland in 1918. There, he unearthed the secrets of Scottish whisky acting as an apprentice to master distillers and blenders. He returned to Japan two years later with two handwritten notebooks that became the bibles of Japanese distilling. After overseeing the building of Japan’s first whisky distillery, Masataka followed his heart, tastebuds and passion for producing whisky his way, and in 1934 he founded the Nikka distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, which remains one of the most celebrated and stunning Japanese whisky distilleries to this day.
Climate and nature are key—in Scotland and Japan
It wasn’t a coincidence that Masataka chose Hokkaido to build his first distillery. At a latitude of 43.2 degrees north, the region has a cool climate ideal for whisky making. Nestled between mountains and sea, it has pure, clean air with hints of brininess on the ocean breeze that Masataka wanted to capture in the terroir. The location of Nikka’s second distillery, Miyagikyo, was chosen for similar reasons. On a scouting visit to the foggy glen, at a latitude of 38.8 degrees north and also near mountains and sea, Masataka was sold on the natural water sources that surrounded the area. The water was so pure, he knew it was the start of a great whisky—and it remains the main source of water for the whisky to this day.
Japanese distilling is defined by self-discipline
Japanese distillers balance tradition with experimentation. At Nikka’s Yoichi distillery, the distillation is coal fired. This is a difficult process that requires astounding skill but stays true to tradition and lends unique toasted flavour notes to the results. Miyagikyo, however, is all about experimentation. From playing with the pot stills’ size and shape (bulge neck, ascending arm, continuous—oh my!) to following a slower steam-powered distillation process, the flavours from Miyagikyo are completely different and constantly being refined.
Both distilleries play with a catalogue of yeast cultures to pair a variety of aromas to the processes. By producing their range of whiskies in-house and outsourcing nothing, Japanese distilleries have complete control over what they produce, how they produce it and why and when they take on new techniques. It’s part of the reason these whiskies often come with a more premium price tag.
The world is falling for Japanese whisky
Another reason for the high cost of whisky in general is that it’s collector-driven—and demand far outweighs production. Subtle, delicate and distinguished, Japanese whiskies are garnering more and more accolades from connoisseurs. They’re winning awards (in fact, Nikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt was awarded the World’s Best Blended Malt at the World Whisky Awards in 2023). They’re celebrated for their complexity and refinement. And as a bonus, their bottles are beautiful to display.
Sip and see for yourself!
If you haven’t already explored this world of whisky, it’s time to add a top-shelf Japanese bottle to your own curated collection. There’s no better place to start than Nikka’s flagship expressions—Miyagikyo Single Malt Japanese Whisky (lcbo.com, $95.20) and Yoichi Single Malt Japanese Whisky (lcbo.com, $95.20).
Further, as part of the Nikka Discovery Series, created in anticipation of Nikka Whisky’s 90th anniversary in 2024, the brand is releasing two limited-edition bottles. These single malts honour the role that experimentation plays in the whisky-making process. Focusing on the aromas rendered from Nikka’s vast selection of yeasts, these expressions produce two different single malts with very different flavour profiles.
1. Nikka Whisky Yoichi Single Malt Aromatic Yeast Discovery Series 2022 Ltd Ed.
With the distinctive smokiness you’d expect from Yoichi’s coal-fired pot stills, it balances smoky-peaty notes with fruity-floral flavours. This is thanks to the aromatic yeast that calls to mind Japan’s premium ginjyo sake. Drink it neat or on the rocks for full-flavour complexity or add water to bring out the fruity-floral notes. Lcbo.com, $279.95
2. Nikka Whisky Miyagikyo Single Malt Aromatic Yeast Discovery Series 2022 Ltd Ed.
Miyagikyo’s signature slow steamed distillation process allows the bright fruit flavours to really shine in this whisky, which give aromas of peach and apricot on the nose. Its silky-smooth mouthfeel and sweet finish mean that it’s best sipped neat. Lcbo.com, $279.95