In the 6th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini & Stephen Lyman discuss how the Japanese whisky industry rose from the ashes to become some of the best whiskies in the world in less than two decades. In this second of a planned three-part series that has now been expanded to four parts, we explore how Japanese whiskies rose from obscurity to begin beating the best Scotch whiskies in the world in their own backyard. We also discuss how the Japanese domestic whisky market recovered independent of the international awards.
NOTE: This episode covers 2007 to present in Japan’s whisky history.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode of Japan Distilled, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
Japan’s Best Whiskies (Chronologically by award)
2001 Yoichi 10 Year won “Best of the Best” in a blind tasting for Whisky Magazine UK.
2003* Yamazaki 12 won gold at the International Spirits Challenge.
2004* Hibiki 30 won the overall trophy at the International Spirits Challenge.
2005* Yamazaki 18 won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
*today these competition medals are so common for Japanese whisky that they no longer rate as news, but these early wins as some of the best whiskies were very important.
2008 Yoichi 1987 won Best Single Malt in the World and Hikbiki 30 won Best Blended Whisky in the World at the World Whiskies Awards (WWA).
2009-2020 a Japanese blended whisky has won a Best Blended Whisky Award every single year at the WWA.
2011 Yamazaki 1984 Limited Edition won Best Single Malt in the World at WWA.
2012 Yamazaki 25 Year won Best Single Malt in the World at WWA.
2017 Chichibu Whisky Matsuri 2017 won Best Single Cask in the World at the World Whisky Awards.
2018 & 2020 Hakushu 25 Year won Best Single Malt in the World at WWA.
All of those pretty impressive awards did not shift drinking habits in Japan. That happened thanks to a clever ad campaign from Suntory to sell their Kakubin Highballs with pretty young actresses enjoying the refreshing drink. Today these are everywhere, and we mean everywhere.
No new whisky distilleries would open in Japan between Mars Shinshu coming online in 1985 and the opening of the Chichibu Distillery in 2008.
Ichiro Akuto would rise to fame when he began releasing bottlings from his family’s defunct Hanyu Distillery in the form of the card series. On the show we said 53, but there were actually 54 bottlings with playing card labels. He would leverage this into his Chichibu Distillery becoming one of the most sought after whiskies among Japanese whisky fans. His offerings are already considered among the best whiskies coming out of Japan.
Okayama Distillery (2011) This maker of sake, shochu, beer, liqueurs, and, yes, whisky, has not made much effort to sell broadly. Their whiskies are made primarily with locally sourced 2 row barley.
Nukada Distillery (2016) From the makers of Hitachino Nest Beer. Their first release was a canned whisky highball so we are still waiting to see what they come up with for proper whisky bottlings.
Akkeshi Distillery (2016) The second whisky distillery in remote northern Hokkaido, Akkeshi has decided to make smoky peated whiskies using local Hokkaido Peat. They have released a few limited bottlings to date.
Shizuoka Distillery (2016) Previously an energy company called Gaia Flow, Shizuoka recently released their first whisky, Prologue K, made with equipment from the shuttered Karuizawa Distillery (thus the K).
Mars Tsunuki (2017) Mars-Hombo, a large alcohol producer, opened a new whisky distillery on the site of their previous korui shochu factory in far south Kagoshima. This expands production beyond their original Shinshu Distillery in Nagano Prefecture.
Kanosuke (2018) Komasa Distillery in Kagoshima got into the whisky game with this beautiful distillery along the coast. It sits just in front of their Hioki Distillery, which makes a popular barrel aged rice shochu, Mellowed Kozuru.
Yasato Distillery (2020) Also from the makers of Hitachino Nest Beer. Production has just started.
WHISKY RISING by Stefan Van Eycken the definitive guide to Japanese whisky. A veritable encyclopedia of information.
JAPANESE WHISKY by Brian Ashcraft an accessible, well-researched introduction to the best whiskies from Japan.
THE WAY OF WHISKY by Dave Broom an international whisky expert’s journey through Japan.
Nomunication a Japanese Whisky-focused site run by whisky professional Whisky Richard.