In the 5th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini & Stephen Lyman tackle the most popular Japanese spirit globally. Japanese whisky has gone from a dying tradition to an international powerhouse in less than two decades. In this first of a three-part series, we tackle the origins of Japanese whisky from the samurai’s first taste to the collapse of the Japanese whisky industry in the wake of the bubble burst.
NOTE: This episode covers 1854 to 2007 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.
By all accounts, whisky first arrived in Japan with Commodore Matthew Perry and his “black ships.” This gunboat diplomacy is credited with the opening of Japan to global trade, but once Perry and his fleet left Japan, the Japanese were left with no knowledge of how to make the golden brown spirit Perry had so generously shared with them.
Early Japanese “whiskies” were not whisky at all, but ersatz whiskies. Fake whiskies. Probably shochu with colorings and flavorings to imitate whisky. That is until a couple of young Japanese chemists traveled abroad.
Jokichi Takamine (1854-1922) was the first Japanese citizen to ever make authentic whisky, but he did so at the Manhattan Distillery in Peoria, Illinois from 1894-1895. However, his patented Takamine Process was abandoned by the distillery’s new owners, and Takamine went on to a very successful career developing pharmaceuticals. He donated the cherry trees to Washington, DC. in 1912 as a thank you for the success his life in the U.S. had brought him.
Masataka Taketsuru (1894-1979) is rightly called the father of Japanese whisky. He was the first Japanese citizen to travel to Scotland to learn how to make malt and grain whiskies before returning to Japan to build the Yamazaki Distillery for Suntory. He subsequently went on to start his own company, Nikka, which is Suntory’s biggest rival to this day.
Surprisingly, Takamine was making whisky in America a full 25 years before Taketsuru ever traveled abroad.
Eigashima Distillery released Japan’s first whisky in 1919, the year Taketsuru started his internships at Scotch distilleries. The provenance of this Eigashima whisky is unknown, but it was most likely imported whisky packaged in Japan. This has remained a common occurrence in Japanese whisky to this day. Eigashima today makes its own whisky – the popular Aksashi brand.
Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery is rightly considered the first proper malt whisky distillery in Japan. Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii released the Shirofuda (white label) brand in 1929 to tepid sales. Taketsuru was demoted by Torii and resigned shortly thereafter.
Taketsuru went on to open the 2nd malt whisky distillery in Japan on north end of remote Hokkaido, a region he believed most mimicked Scotland’s climate. The Yoichi Distillery began selling Nikka Whisky in 1940. Supplying whisky to the Japanese navy likely saved the fledgling company from failure.
Whisky became a very popular drink in post-war Japan due to the success of Tory’s Bars. These popular English style pubs specialized in serving Suntory whisky at a price similar to a cup of coffee.
Sadly, the bubble created by real estate speculation crashed the Japanese economy and whisky sales plummeted to their nadir in 2007. That year Japanese whisky makers shipped just 20% of what they had sold at the peak in 1983.
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 spirit.
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.