Japan one-ups Scotch with whisky, coveted around the world

Suntory's chief blender Shinji Fukuyo demonstrates how he examines the whisky at the Suntory distillery in Yamazaki, near Kyoto. AP Photo/Koji Ueda

YAMAZAKI —

A dim storage room surrounded by bamboo groves and pastoral hills is filled wall-to-wall with 3,000 wooden barrels. Here sleeps, for years, sometimes decades, prized Japanese whisky.

The Suntory distillery in Yamazaki, near the ancient capital of Kyoto, is where the first drop of made-in-Japan malt whisky was distilled in 1924.

These days, Japanese whisky is winning accolades from around the world, often beating the products from Scotland its makers set out to emulate.

In 2003, the Yamazaki 12 Years single malt whisky became the first Japanese whisky to win the gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge, the most authoritative liquor competition in the world. Last year, Hibiki, another Suntory label, won the World’s Best Blended Whisky prize at the World Whiskies Awards, for the fourth time. A bottle of Yamazaki Sherry Cask, aged 25 years, fetches thousands of dollars each.

“They have a lot more earthiness to them. They are much more a product of their environment,” Wes Barbee, a 23-year-old consultant from Houston, gushed as he joined dozens of Japanese and foreign tourists visiting the Yamazaki distillery and lining up for a taste.

“American and Canadian whisky has nothing on this. It’s mass production. This is very intimate. The flavors are carefully chosen,” he said.

___

Japan Inc. abounds with stories of manufacturers like automaker Toyota Motor Corp. and musical instrument manufacturer Yamaha Corp. that at first imitated Western pioneers in their industries but ended up matching if not outdoing them.

Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii was determined to introduce Scotch to Japan. Overcoming early failures, he eventually adapted his methods to distill a whisky palatable to Japanese.

Experts believe that aside from Japan’s clean and tasty ground water, its four distinct seasons help to deepen whisky flavors during years of aging.

Scotland’s many distilleries make blending whisky flavors easy. Suntory had to develop its own array of flavors using various temperatures and combinations of yeasts for fermentation, as well as more complex methods of distilling whisky.

After fermentation, the beige liquid gets heated and distilled in “pot stills,” huge metallic containers of varying shapes that can quicken or delay the distilling process, yielding nuances of flavors.

The result is a colorless liquid that smells almost like antiseptic that is stored in barrels, or casks, in a cavernous warehouse designed for aging whiskies. No nails are used in the casks, whose strips of old wood are bound by tightened metal rings. Aging gives whisky its color and personality — what whisky lovers say distinguishes it from wine or beer.

The casks, used over and over again, include old wine and bourbon barrels. Some are from Europe and the U.S. and others are made of Japanese oak. Suntory’s three distilleries in Japan house a million casks.

___

It’s a mystery exactly how whisky ages, says Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory’s chief blender.

Flavors of each cask are mixed — just right, like a “jigsaw puzzle,” he says — to create, and recreate, various kinds of whisky and develop new ones.

A serious-looking, slight man with graying hair, Fukuyo says he avoids garlic or greasy fish, especially for breakfast, to keep his taste buds pure for his job.

“What’s important for whisky is that its deliciousness must deepen with aging, sitting in the casks for a long time,” said Fukuyo, 55, demonstrating how he examines the whisky in a glass, swirling the crystalline amber spirit against the light.

He gently rolls a sip on his tongue, then spits it out: Fukuyo does 100 such tastings a day, sometimes more than 200. He switches positions of the glasses on the table to remember what he just tasted. There is no time for note-taking.

“It’s a clean and beautiful taste. It’s hard to explain in words,” he said of Japanese whisky.

Japanese whisky aged in a white oak cask has a hint of citrus or green-apple. One aged in a sherry cask is fragrant, rich and sweet, evocative of dried fruit. Whisky aged in Japanese oak and smoky whisky have pungent, herbal flavors.

The growing popularity of Japan’s cuisine has helped win a following for its whisky, which was designed to be consumed with food, experts say.

Nikka Whisky, a unit of Asahi Breweries, froze its overseas expansion in 2014, finding it impossible to keep up with demand, says Emiko Kaji, who manages Nikka’s international business.

Nikka Whisky From the Barrel, packaged in a sleek bottle, is doing especially well in Europe, she says.

___

Sukhinder Singh, owner of London-based retailer The Whisky Exchange, says he has had to ration his supplies of Japanese whisky to hotels and restaurants. He never seems to have enough.

At first, Japanese victories in blindfold whisky contests baffled connoisseurs. By now the Japanese blends have won over even the skeptics, he said.

When whisky expert Jim Murray voted the Yamazaki Sherry Cask the Best Whisky in the World for his 2015 Whisky Bible, its price shot up overnight. Prices of other Japanese whiskies have also been rising.

“Everyone went: We want to buy Japanese,” Singh said in a phone interview. “The problem we have at the moment is not selling it. It’s getting it.

“We can sell every bottle we can get,” he said.

Zoetrope, a tiny bar in a dingy Tokyo backstreet building, is famed among lovers of Japanese whisky.

“Japanese whisky has an unpredictability that makes it fun, and the highly skillful Japanese blenders have created a subtle taste with an impeccable balance,” said Atsushi Horigami, Zoetrope’s owner and bartender, standing before counters and shelves crammed with colorful bottles.

Thousands of miles (kilometers) away at Festa, a bar in San Francisco, banker Crystal Roseberry was trying Suntory’s Yamazaki 12, at $40 a drink, for the first time.

“Soft, silky, not jarring, elegant, friendly. And it still has a structure of a good whisky, which I think is very important,” she said in an interview over an online call. “This whisky is intriguing,”

Bar owner Masae Matsumoto was glad to have stocked up on Yamazaki.

“It’s gotten impossible to get over the last six months,” she said. “Japanese whisky tastes so good.”

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • 2

    PTownsend

    One more reason I like living here is Japanese whisky is easily available.

  • 6

    paulinusa

    About ten years ago I bought bottles of basic Yamazaki and Nikka whiskies in Japan for reasonable prices. Now those prices have dramatically increased both in Japan and the US, probably a result of success and publicity.

  • 1

    harajuku_press

    Too popular too fast. Glad I got to enjoy a lot of it, particularly the distillery-only releases, back in the day. Great stuff.

  • 3

    papigiulio

    One more reason I like living here is Japanese whisky is easily available.

    Really? Have you tried getting a hibiki? Its near impossible unless you have the right contacts. Prices are also pretty steep even in Japan.

  • 0

    sourpuss

    About 5-6 years ago, I picked up a bottle of Hibiki 17(yr?) for 10,000 yen after sampling it at the airport on the way back to Canada. They were pushing it because it had won a gold at the international spirits challenge, and I bought it on a whim as something to try with the family back home.

    Last year I couldn't find anything at the airport. It was all sold out, save for a 50,000 yen bottle of Hibiki 20(yr?) Next time I go back, I'll pick up something from the supermarket and pack it in my check-in luggage.

  • 4

    JeffLee

    "They are much more a product of their environment."

    The peat that provides Yoichi with its distinctive flavor is imported from Scotland. What do ”23 year old consultants" know, anyway.

  • 2

    PTownsend

    @papigu Its near impossible unless you have the right contacts. Prices are also pretty steep even in Japan.

    I buy a mid-priced brand that's always available at my neighborhood store. As much as I like the high-priced stuff, I'm guided by the law of diminishing returns.

  • 3

    Haaa Nemui

    The peat that provides Yoichi with its distinctive flavor is imported from Scotland. What do ”23 year old consultants" know, anyway.

    This one knows that American and Canadian whiskeys have nothing on Japanese.

  • -3

    Mr. Noidall

    This one knows that American and Canadian whiskeys have nothing on Japanese.

    Ok. So Japan makes better whiskey. What's your point? Are you trying to imply something more? Europe and America make better beers and wines than Japan, and Norway makes a far superior lutefisk. And you know, so what!

  • 5

    wanderlust

    ...its four distinct seasons help to deepen whisky flavors during years of aging...

    Experts gushed.

    Only Japan has four seasons?

  • 3

    Aly Rustom

    Lets try to be positive about this- maybe one silver lining is that much coveted foreign whiskey like JW and Chivas will be sold for cheaper here than abroad? Just trying to be positive..

  • 4

    GW

    When whisky expert Jim Murray voted the Yamazaki Sherry Cask the Best Whisky in the World for his 2015 Whisky Bible, its price shot up overnight. Prices of other Japanese whiskies have also been rising.

    Haha I remember just missing out on this stuff, stores nearby had it, when JM news came out I went out to get some alas its was never to be seen again, damn!

    I am waiting on a small production batch of ICHIRO I bought furosato noze that should be very good! Anybody who like J-scotch/Whisky should head up to Chichibu, Saitama where its made. The mrs & I booked a night into a place with a small bar, 3-4 seats the master has a huge staff of Ichiro & more from over the last 10-15years, tried about 10 different kinds before I called it a night, great stuff

  • 4

    Haaa Nemui

    Ok. So Japan makes better whiskey. What's your point? Are you trying to imply something more? Europe and America make better beers and wines than Japan, and Norway makes a far superior lutefisk. And you know, so what!

    Nope... not trying to imply anything more at all. My comment was regarding a previous comment which leaves an implication that a 23 year old consultant may not have wisdom, knowledge or experience enough to be passing judgement on the topic. Simply put... he is right about Japanese whiskys being better. Nothing more, nothing less. Calm down. Finish work early and go have a whisky.

  • 1

    Aly Rustom

    I am waiting on a small production batch of ICHIRO I bought furosato noze that should be very good! Anybody who like J-scotch/Whisky should head up to Chichibu, Saitama where its made. The mrs & I booked a night into a place with a small bar, 3-4 seats the master has a huge staff of Ichiro & more from over the last 10-15years, tried about 10 different kinds before I called it a night, great stuff

    Wow! Sounds awesome! I frequently go to chichibu and never heard of this! Could you provide a link brother?

  • 0

    Triring

    These days a 17 years Taketsuru fetches 20,000 yen a bottle and a bottle of 17 years Yamazaki goes for 25,000 yen while a 17 years Ballentine can be bought around 12,000 yen or less.

  • 0

    GW

    Above should be huge STASH, not staff LOL

    Also people comparing these with bourbon & rye whisky need to know they are completely DIFFERENT drinks LOL!!

  • 2

    PeaceWarrior

    I'll keep drinking my Johnny Walker Blue, thank you. Japan has so many interesting drinks to try though. Just got a bottle of awamori shochu last night and I am looking forward to trying it out.

    I have found cheap Japanese whisky to be very good, superb bang for the buck.

  • 2

    GW

    Aly,

    Here is a JTimes write up, punch in Ichiro & whisky & a number of links pop up!

    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2013/02/08/food/whisky-distillery-plays-a-winning-hand/#.WMoAC7m1twE

  • 0

    papigiulio

    I have found cheap Japanese whisky to be very good, superb bang for the buck.

    Ill probably get shot for this but Suntory Kaku. runs

  • -4

    presto345

    ..its four distinct seasons help to deepen whisky flavors during years of aging...Experts gushed. Only Japan has four seasons?

    Of course not. Check out the 'distinct' part. In Japan the seasons are clearly and dramatically defined. In some countries they are not and smoothly indistinctly blend into each other.

  • 4

    Mr. Noidall

    Other countries don't have four seasons. But strangely enough, other countries have words in their languages for the four seasons. This even when Japan shut itself up in its corner of the world, and no one had contact with the Japanese for centuries. Amazing! I guess I'll leave it up to paleoanthropologidts to explain that one.

  • 2

    GW

    I have found cheap Japanese whisky to be very good, superb bang for the buck.

    Hope you are not talking about the crap sold in 3 & 5L plastic jugs, that stuff will shorten your lifespan!!

  • 1

    PeaceWarrior

    No GW, no, no, no!

  • -2

    Triring

    Well most places have four seasons BUT I am not aware of many places where snow piles in the winter and ALSO sees tropical hurricanes every summer.

  • 0

    cleo

    Last year I couldn't find anything at the airport. It was all sold out..... Next time I go back, I'll pick up something from the supermarket

    I wanted to give my brother in the UK a bottle of the good stuff, and when my son was headed over to the UK in the New Year I asked him to get a bottle in duty free. He phoned to tell me there was no Japanese whisky apart from Nikka, and would that do.... I'd been thinking in terms of Yamazaki, but it isn't to be found anywhere. None of our local supermarkets (of course) have it, neither do the couple of booze senmontens in the big town down the road.

    Looks like it will be a while before my poor brother tastes Yamazaki again. In the meantime I'm happy with Scotch single malt.

  • 0

    Aly Rustom

    GW- Thanks so much for the link!

    I have found cheap Japanese whisky to be very good, superb bang for the buck. Hope you are not talking about the crap sold in 3 & 5L plastic jugs, that stuff will shorten your lifespan!!

    The best thing to do is to drink the good stuff til you start to get a little tipsy. Then when you are sure that the taste buds are numb you switch to the cheap stuff. That way, the good stuff lasts longer and you get drunk cheaper.

    Pointers from a guy whose had a long and glorious career with all kinds of liquor..

  • 6

    zichi

    The problems are the prices not the quality. I can find very good Scotch for very good prices.

  • 2

    Striker10

    Japanese whisky is very good, and* used to be* a great deal. I started really getting into it about a year before it exploded in popularity and prices shot up. Wish I had picked up more bottles of the old yoichi for 1500 yen back in the day, they're now almost double that!

    As it stands now, Japanese whisky has become over priced because of high demand and low supply, so I've switched to foreign brands that have become cheaper, relatively speaking. Btw, Canadian whisky is cheaper here in Japan than back in Canada!

  • 2

    zichi

    My favorite Scotch at the moment is anCnoc (pronounced a-nock) single malt 12 years and also Bowmore Islay single malt 12 years. Both can be found for good prices.

  • 4

    GW

    No GW, no, no, no!

    Good you had me worried for a sec LOL! When my brother & his then Uni aged son came over I told him about ""TOKYO Miki"" as we entered a liquor store then pointed out the 5L bottles & the price, at first he was considering snagging one till I told him it was legal poison LOL!!!

    Cleo, your better off buying your J-whisky BEFORE you head to the airport, there is NO DUTY on stuff made & sold in Japan!!! Also beware duty free(for imports) DOESNT mean the price is cheap!!!

    As Zichi says you can buy super cheap scotch, rye whiskey, bourbon in stores in Japan!

    And Striker yes CC is WAY cheaper than back in Cda, shows just how high the local sin taxes are back there!! Outrageous!!

  • 2

    ThonTaddeo

    I visited the Yamazaki distillery and went on the tour, with those guides and their distinctive purple uniforms, a few years ago -- you will cross the Kyoto-Osaka border on foot depending on which train line you use to get there! It's excellent. They show you the whole process, show you Barrel No. 0001 from 1923 (?), and then give you some samples of their products and their rivals'; all great (and my fellow tourist offered her samples to me, meaning that I drank two people's worth of them).

    I highly recommend going if you're looking for something a little offbeat to do in between Kyoto and Osaka. Nice little town surrounding the place, too!

  • 0

    cleo

    your better off buying your J-whisky BEFORE you head to the airport

    But the Yamazaki wasn't/isn't available anywhere!

    Personally I'm happy with single malt Scotch from Yamaya - cheap, and I get an extra discount when I pay with Waon.

  • 0

    Mocheake

    My friends love Yamazaki and Hibiki. I, for one, can't tell the difference between most of them. Japan makes good whisky, I guess but let's not get too carried away with the 'abounds with stories of...' routine, please, because that can be said of many countries in many industries. Have to feed that collective ego of superiority every day here, don' t they?

  • 1

    ClippetyClop

    For some reason this annoys me. I want Scotland's Scotch to be the best Scotch. In the same way that I want France's Champagne to be the best bubbly. Irrational but I'm old and I can think like that (after a few Scotches)

  • 1

    lucabrasi

    @Clippety

    Come to England. We've got the best Belgian beer in the world! (Stella Artois, brewed in Preston).

  • 2

    philly1

    Check out the 'distinct' part. In Japan the seasons are clearly and dramatically defined. In some countries they are not and smoothly indistinctly blend into each other.

    All 4 seasons anywhere (including Japan) gradually blend into each other. Only in Japan do people set a date and change their clothing (even before the season transitions) to match the seasons. The Japanese have created a long story--essentially a construct--about their unique four seasons in the service of art. There actually are 5 climatic seasons, but the rainy season between spring and summer is conveniently overlooked. As Shakeskpeare said, "...thinking makes it so." Therefore, the unique four seasons of Japan affect the taste of Japanese whisky." That's the story.

    For a comprehensive discussion of the subject read Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons by Haruo Shirane. https://cup.columbia.edu/book/japan-and-the-culture-of-the-four-seasons/9780231152808

  • 1

    Jeff Huffman

    Japan one-ups Scotch with whisky, coveted around the world

    Scotch is a whisky. Just as bourbon is a whisky. And if you're ever in Scotland, you will learn that Scotch whisky is the whisky. Rather, the headline should read "Japan one-ups the Scots with a whisky coveted around the world."

    ClippetyClopMAR. 16, 2017 - 11:03PM JST For some reason this annoys me. I want Scotland's Scotch to be the best Scotch. In the same way that I want France's Champagne to be the best bubbly. Irrational but I'm old and I can think like that (after a few Scotches)

    Well, "Scotland's Scotch" is the best Scotch (whisky) because it's the only Scotch (whisky). Otherwise, it's a Kentucky whiskey, an Irish whisky, a Canadian whisky or a Japanese whisky. Further, there is no "best" as that's a subjective judgment.

    The same is true for sparkling wines, except more so. The French can insist that anything made outside the Champagne region of France cannot be called Champagne, even if it is produced by méthode champenoise. However, that is no determinate of what is "best." in sparkling wine. Hell, how many different vintners are there in Champagne producing sparkling wine? Brut is not the same as demi-sec and some are produced with chardonnay grapes and other varieties with pinot noir.

  • 0

    Wakarimasen

    Ichiro's malts. Taketsuru. Chichibu all excellent.

  • 1

    presto345

    We've got the best Belgian beer in the world! (Stella Artois, brewed in Preston)

    Stella Artois is a brewer, originally Belgian, of a bland 5% alcohol pilsner which afa quality and taste goes is, well, bland. Its watered down version is available in the UK. The brewer in now in Dutch hands. Both Britain and Belgium brew a lot of fantastic beers, but Stella Artois is not one of them.

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