Movie buffs might remember Lost in Translation (2003) for its stellar acting, lush cinematography, and maddeningly ambiguous ending. But fans of whisky, on the other hand, remember it more for the spotlight on the “water of life,” aka whisky. In the film, Bill Murray, an aging actor, travels to Tokyo to star in an advertisement for Suntory whisky, which, at the time, wasn’t well known outside of Japan. In the commercial, Murray delicately holds the whisky glass, takes a sip, and stares into the camera as if sharing a secret with the audience, as if saying: you really need to try this. As it so happens, 2003 was also the year that Suntory’s Yamazaki 12-Year-Old won a Gold at the International Spirits Challenge (a huge deal for those unfamiliar) and a year later, the Hibiki 30-Year-Old won a trophy in the same competition. Of course, long before Bill Murray, and long before the international accolades and awards, high-quality and innovative whisky was being crafted in the land of the rising sun.
Japan was first introduced to whisky—yes, they spell it just like the Scottish do—in 1853 by Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy. That year, he sailed into the Tokyo Harbor, bringing with him an American whisky as a gift for the emperor. However, it wasn’t until 1918 that Masataka Taketsuru, the son of sake makers, traveled to Scotland to learn the art of whisky-making from the masters; this, as it turned out, would change everything.
Taketsuru enrolled in the University of Glasgow—becoming the first Japanese ever to study the fine art of whisky making—and served as an apprentice at several distilleries, where he also received training as a blender. Not only did he learn the ins and outs of the drink, he became a master blender and met his future wife, Jessie Roberta (Rita). With his new repertoire of expertise, Taketsuru returned to Japan in 1920 and was hired by Suntory’s founder, Shinjiro Torri, to open the Yamazaki distillery, where he helped develop Japan’s first whisky.
As a natural-born innovator and renegade, Taketsuru soon realized he had to go off on his own, and in 1933 he and his wife Rita established Nikka Whisky and built its first distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, which, not coincidentally, had many similarities to Scotland in terms of terrain and weather. As the Father of Japanese Whisky, Taketsuru helped usher in the first generation of whisky aficionados in the country, and never once chose efficiency over quality.
In the almost 100 years since the first Japanese whisky was born, the drink has only grown in popularity in the country, not to mention worldwide, and shows no sign of slowing down. Case in point: in 2015, Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible named Suntory’s 2013 Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask, “the best in the world, a drink of ‘near incredible genius.’”
For a Japanese whisky to beat out a Scottish or American whisky as the best in the world may seem ludicrous, but in studying the process, philosophy, and flavor, it actually makes a lot of sense. In many ways, Japanese whisky is in a league of its own. It does not have strict rules over what makes a whisky Japanese, unlike Scotch or bourbon. It just needs to be made in Japan, which leaves room for innovation and creativity. The production is more or less the same—malted barley is distilled and barrel-aged in casks for a minimum of three years—but outside of that, Japan has its own distinctions when it comes to crafting the water of life. Even the tasters serve in their roles with the utmost dedication and care. They’ve been known to eat the same food every day to keep their palates pure and can’t smoke or eat garlic when tasting the product.
When it comes to Suntory’s process, it’s still a classic, traditional one. Washback machines are used for mixing malted barley with yeast and water. Copper stills and casks, where the whisky matures for years, are crucial to superior flavor. In a CBS News special in 2018, Suntory’s chief blender, Shinji Fukuyo, described it as, “very fruity and very smooth. And if you focus on the aftertaste, a bit of spicy note is still there. [That flavor] comes from Japanese oak.”
Attention to process and detail is part of Japan’s success in whisky production. But it’s also thanks to the Japanese business philosophy of kaizen, which means “continuous improvement,” and a drive for experimentation, setting it apart from other countries versions. The Japanese believe the product to be dynamic, rather than static—continuously evolving and becoming new.
Whisky is a serious business in Japan as well as a serious art, and each batch can vary greatly depending on the year of production, terroir, and weather. And then there’s the water, which, believe it or not, can greatly affect taste and is often given much credit as to why the Japanese are going above and beyond the competition. Japanese distilleries pride themselves on the purity of their soft mineral water, and building next to high-elevation mountain reserves and low-elevation natural springs can help to achieve a refined taste.
Another seemingly small but very important factor is what kind of wood is used for the barrels. In Japan, most distilleries use Japanese oak, or mizunara, which is more porous than American or European oak. The mizunara grow mostly in Hokkaido, and need to be at least 200 years old in order to make a barrel. On top of that, they’re often crooked in shape, making it hard to cut straight planks, all of which is why a brand such as Suntory only constructs about 130 barrels a year.
The last thing that can make or break a whisky? The weather. In the summer, for instance, the barrels expand and whisky is sucked into the wood, which gives it a—not surprisingly—woody flavor. In the winter, on the other hand, the barrels contract, and makers refer to the liquid as sleeping, creating a less woody flavor profile. In the spring, flowers such as cherry blossoms can affect the taste of the whisky, and in fall, the shifting foliage will do the same.
Another very good year for Suntory: 2018 when it won four World Whiskies Awards in London, and was voted as Distiller of the Year 2018, the best in the world. With such a title, it would be perfectly respectable (and deserved) to rest on its laurels for a moment or two, but when asked in the same CBS special what winning Distiller of the Year means to Fukuyo, he responded in true kaizen fashion, saying, “We still have space to improve.”
Now that you’ve got an overview of why Japanese whisky is worth sampling, you’ll want to make sure you do it the right way. Many locals sip their whisky with a bit of soda water if it’s on the cheaper side to bring out the flavor, or a splash of mineral water for the more expensive. The key is to always use high-quality water, and also, keep in mind that many of the high-proof whiskies are designed to be diluted. And if you use ice, you’ll want a single-malt whisky, preferably poured over a hand-crafted ice ball.
Want to invest in a bottle but not sure what to buy? Here are some top picks for the adventurous, safe, and everything in between.
1. Akashi 5-Year Sherry Cask
A single malt whisky from the Eigashima Distillery, which only has five employees handling all of its production. This particular bottling all comes from just one sherry cask. Look out for notes of dried fruit, raisins, and enjoy that silky mouthfeel.
2. Nikka Whisky from the Barrel
Originally released in 1984 and aged a notable 12 years, this single malt is finished in a combo of Japanese mizunara oak, American white oak, and sherry casks, with notes of citrus and spice in each pour.
3. Hibiki 21 Year
If you’re looking to sample a master blender’s expertise, this is the one to do it with. Winner of multiple Best Blended Whisky titles at the World Whiskies Awards, it draws from all three of Suntory’s distilleries, is made of barley and grain, and is sweet with touches of fruit, wood, and spice. Pricey, but worth the splurge.
4. Komatagatake Double Cellars Single Malt
This single malt is actually made up of vintages matured at Hombo Shuzo’s two distinct distilleries: Tsunuki in Kagoshima and Mars Shinshu in Nagano. The result is that by sipping this whisky, you’ll taste the aging results from two different climates, a mixture of vanilla, pineapple, and even some toffee. A small distillery, but mighty on the tongue.
5. Moon Glow Limited Edition 2018
Coming from the small but passionate Wakatsuru Saburomaru distillery, this offering is made up of whiskies aged 10 to 20 years. When the Moon Glow First Release was named the Best Japanese Limited Blended Release at the World Whiskies Awards 2018, it only made sense that this next offering sold out so quickly.