Whisky (ウィスキー) was introduced to Japan after the end of the feudal era in the Meiji Period, and the commercial production of domestic whisky started in the 1920s. Japanese whiskies are similar to Scottish whiskies, because the Japanese whisky pioneers learnt their trade from the Scottish whisky malt masters. Despite their comparably short history, Japanese whiskies are now on par with some of the finest Scotch whiskies and have won top international awards.
Torii Shinjiro and Taketsuru Masataka are considered the founding fathers of Japanese whisky - Torii founded the Suntory company, while Taketsuru founded the Nikka company - and their early histories are intertwined. Taketsuru was the malt master who had studied whisky making in Scotland before working for Torii at Yamazaki and later starting his own company in Yoichi.
Distilleries in Japan
Suntory and Nikka remain the country's largest whisky producers with four distilleries across Japan: Suntory's Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries and Nikka's Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. In addition, there are also a handful of smaller distilleries found in the country. All four distilleries by Nikka and Suntory are open to the public, although some require advance reservations:
Founded in 1923 by Torii Shinjiro, the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery just outside Kyoto is one of the oldest whisky distilleries in Japan. Torii picked Yamazaki as a location for its quality natural waters which plays a large role in the flavor of the whisky. Tourists can participate in paid guided tours and view the Suntory Yamazaki museum, however, advance reservations are required.
The Nikka Yoichi Distillery near Otaru in Hokkaido is another of the oldest distilleries in Japan. The company's founder, Taketsuru Masataka, studied whisky making techniques for several years in Scotland before bringing the craft back to Japan. The distillery offers free guided and self-guided tours and a good museum. Advance reservations are not mandatory.
Suntory Hakushu Distillery
10 minute taxi ride from Kobuchizawa Station on the JR Chuo Line
The Suntory Hakushu Distillery near Kofu in Yamanashi Prefecture was established in 1973, its location near the Southern Alps chosen for the area's pristine water. The distillery, which is pleasantly located in a forest, contains a museum, shop, bar and restaurant. Advance reservations are required for visiting the distillery.
Nikka Miyagikyo Distillery
25 minute walk from Sakunami Station on the JR Senzan Line
The Nikka Miyagikyo Distillery was built in 1969 and is tucked away in a mountainous area near Sendai. The distillery is surrounded by forest and features a landscaped pond like those found in traditional Japanese gardens. Parts of the distillery grounds can only be viewed by joining a free guided tour which ends in a tasting session. Advance reservations are not necessary but recommended.
How to enjoy Japanese whisky
There are a number of ways to enjoy Japanese whisky. The most common ways are neat (commonly known as straight in Japan), on the rocks with ice, and mixed with still water (known as mizuwari) or with hot water (known as oyuwari). While the first three are common ways to drinking whisky all over the world, hot whisky in Japan is different from a hot toddy in that hot water is simply added to whisky without the addition of sweeteners, herbs or spices.
A highball is a whisky drink that is ubiquitous in Japan. It is whisky mixed with carbonated water. Almost all izakaya and most restaurants will have highball on their drink menu, and the drink can also be found at watering holes and in cans at convenience stores. Making highballs at home is not difficult either: Fill your glass to the brim with ice, add the whisky, pour in chilled carbonated water without touching as much ice as possible to prevent the ice from melting too quickly, stir once and top up with more ice before serving immediately.
Where to drink Japanese whisky
Cocktail bars, hotel bars and restaurants like izakaya will carry at least one type of Japanese whisky. Convenience stores also offer a small variety of unaged whiskies as well as canned highballs.
Dedicated whisky bars on the other hand, are typically limited to the larger cities, and a large number of them are located in Tokyo and Osaka. Suntory and Nikka both have their whisky bars in Tokyo where guests can drink almost all the whiskies produced by the companies. Many other whisky bars carry international whisky labels in addition to Japanese ones, places like Bar K in Osaka, Ben Fiddich and Shot Bar Zoetrope in Shinjuku, and the Tokyo Whisky Library in Aoyama.