Japanese Whisky

First distillery – Yamazaki – 1923

Founding fathers

  • Shinjiro Torii - established the Suntory brand, Yamazaki in the Vale of Yamazaki, suburb of Kyoto in 1923
    • Wholesaler, started importing western liqour and made a local wine based on a Portuguese wine – made him a successful merchant
    • Unhappy though and wanted to make a local whisky for local people
    • Part of the distillery was built on the site of a former temple. When constructing the distillery they decided to build a shrine to symbolize this and there are always two casks of maturing whisky placed there as an offerings to the gods!
    • Torii employed Masataka Taketsuru as a distillery executive. He had spent many years in Scotland studying and learning the art of distilling there – brought his skills back to Japan early 20s
  • Masataka Taketsuru – went on to found Yoichi on Hokkaido eleven years later

For some time – it was believed by many, that whisky made in the Scottish style, but not produced in Scotland, could never measure up to the standards of the traditional Scotch whisky distilleries.

Before 2000, the market for Japanese whiskies was almost entirely domestic, though this changed in 2001 when Nikka's 10-year Yoichi single malt won "Best of the Best" at Whisky Magazine's awards

Since then, in numerous blind tastings, on more than one occasion, the results have had Japanese single malts (particularly those of Nikka's Yoichi and Suntory's Yamazaki) scoring higher than their Scottish counterparts.


Initially was a conscious effort to recreate Scottish style whisky – Yoichi is similar terrain & climate – but increasingly local palates influenced distillers to create different styles.

Japan ‘vertical’ blending business model differs from Scotland – whisky companies owned both the distilleries and the brands of blended whiskies – so a blended whisky in Japan would only be a blended whisky will only contain whiskies from distilleries owned by the same company. This sometimes produced limited blends – a factor that was thought to impact sales outside of Japan over the years.

A reaction to this however, is that in recent years is for individual distilleries producing increasingly diverse single malts.

The term ‘Mizuwari’ means "mixed with water" and is a popular way of drinking spirits in Japan. Typically, about two parts of cold water are mixed with one part of the spirit and some ice. The word is pronounced "mi-zu-wa-ri"

Now 8 active distilleries with 4 sleeping distilleries - see map.



The bulk of Japanese blended whisky is consumed in cocktails, notably as whisky highballs, while fine whisky is primarily drunk straight or on the rocks.

In addition to soda, Japanese whisky is often drunk mixed with hot water, particularly in winter, or cold water particularly in summer.

It is said that Japanese whiskies are crafted in the Scottish style - between Lowland and Speyside in style. Delicate and perfumed with honeyed sweetness.

They are sometimes described as being smooth, but that is doing them an injustice. Light sherry and floral notes, sometimes they have been peated for a smoky, quasi Islay style.


Most expensive Japanese whiskies

  • Yamazaki (min) 50yo (matured in Mizunara casks) single malts – only 50 bottles are produced in each release
  • 2005               $134,000
  • 2007               $120,000
  • 2011               $119,000


Other – general

Recent shot from the ‘most expensive whisky’ – fake

  • Chinese businessman paid $10,000 for a single shot of ‘Macallan 1878’ in Switzerland - $300,000 bottle was suspicious and investigated.. near worthless 1970 Scottish blend