Drinks News

Japanese Drams: What makes Japanese whisky unique

With its more delicate, approachable styles, over the past decade demand for Japanese whisky has outstripped supply. Here are the Japanese whisky bottles to know about.
Japanese whisky in two glasses and a bottle of Japanese whisky in the backgroundKristina Soljo

Confession: I’ve never been a massive whisky fan. It took a well-known Scottish chef to sit me down one night post-service to explain the finer details of it to me (while imbibing quite a few) before I developed a professional appreciation for it. Even then, it wasn’t my drink of choice, until recently.

Enter the delicious world of Japanese whisky, with its more delicate, approachable styles that took my breath away. And I’m not the only one; over the past decade demand for Japanese whisky has outstripped supply. Some producers, such as master blender Jota Tanaka at Fuji, claim it would take “close to another 10 years to meet the global demands”.

After drinking one of the seasonal Highballs (flavoured with spiced peach to enhance the spirit’s floral notes) at The Elysian Whisky Bar in Fitzroy, I can see what all the fuss is about. The Elysian’s owner Yao Wong has seen a steady increase in people requesting to try Japanese whisky “because they had heard about it from others – even those who are not whisky drinkers at all”.

But as often happens when something becomes popular, people acting in bad faith try to capitalise on it. Wong explains, “Wonderful Japanese whiskies we used to drink daily 10 years ago have suddenly become insane collector’s items that speculators hoard and trade like commodities. We’re seeing really crazy retail and after-market prices for Japanese whisky in Australia. And still, they get snapped up quickly and willingly.”

This demand led to a slew of “Japanese” presenting whiskies being released on the market, confusing consumers who sought the genuine article. So even though Japanese whisky is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, it’s only recently that strict guidelines and criteria for what constitutes Japanese whisky have been outlined. The jist of the new criteria is: production, ageing and bottling must all occur in Japan and only Japanese water can be used during distillation. This kind of clarification and definition of spirits has long been a comfort to Scotch whisky drinkers, who enjoy knowing the product in the bottle is what it says it is.

Multi-award-winning master blender Tanaka, in charge of whisky creation at the Fuji distillery, was instrumental in helping create the new guidelines (alongside other distilleries such as Nikka and Mars Distillery). He notes they didn’t want the classifications to stifle innovation “but to provide integrity, high quality and prove provenance of the spirit”.

Blended Style Japanese Whisky

Fuji Single Grain Japanese Whiskey, $175 for 700ml

A blended whisky is mixed for a variety of grains and a variety of barrel ages in the name of balance and refinement. Blends are the norm in Japan but Fuji Whisky is the only distillery in the world distilling different styles of grain whisky in one blend. For Japanese whisky newbies, Fuji Single Grain Japanese Whiskey ($175 for 700ml) is an easy introduction. Fuji Gotemba is the only distillery in the world to craft, age and bottle three styles of grain whisky (Bourbon, Canadian and Scottish) at one single site, hence the ‘single’.


Wine Cask Style Japanese Whisky

Iwai Tradition Wine Cask Finish, $128 for 750ml

With the rise of Japanese-made wines and many of the commercial distilleries owned by companies with global winemaking brands in their portfolios, the ability to age whisky in wine casks is becoming more prevalent, adding another dimension to the whiskies’ flavours. Mars Whisky Iwar Tradition Wine Cask Finish ($130 for 750ml) is one to try. Mars was established in 1548 and is Japan’s highest whisky distillery (nearly 800 metres above sea level). A rich and opulent style with orange peel, dark chocolate and cardamom notes.


Peated Japanese Whisky

Chichibu Ichiro’s The Peated 10th Anniversary, $650 for 700ml

These whiskies are flavoured by the peat fires used to dry malted barley. These are your leather couch-setting, relaxing-with-a-good-book kind of whiskies. Japanese peated styles tend to be more delicate than their Scottish counterparts. This style is not for the faint of heart but for drinkers who appreciate intense flavours such as robust elements of kelp, smoke, and rich forest floor. Try Chichibu Ichiro’s The Peated 10th Anniversary ($650 for 700ml).


Single Malt Japanese Whisky

Nikka Yoichi Single Malt, $166 for 700ml

Scotland remains the benchmark producer for distillers worldwide so it’s no surprise that single malt whisky, from single distilleries, are making a mark in Japan. Lovers of Scottish whisky who want to try something new should seek out Nikka Yoichi Single Malt ($166 for 700ml), which balances smoky elements with white floral and nectarine notes. Meanwhile Suntory Whisky The Yamazaki 12YO Single Malt ($470 for 700ml), from the country’s first distillery, offers a taste of Japanese whisky history (and well worth the price tag). Sip and savour this one with its vanilla, sea spray and ripe whie peaches and try to make it last.


Related stories