Japanese whisky turns 100 as craft distilleries transform industry
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of whisky-making in Japan since the founding of market leader Suntory's first distillery in Yamazaki, western Japan, in 1923.
And at the century mark, there are now more than 100 licensed distilleries in the country — a doubling over the past decade — as they tap into surging demand for Japanese whisky.
Taiko Nakamura's Shizuoka Distillery is among the new craft brands. Nakamura had been running a small manufacturing company set up by his grandfather, but yearned to do something more creative and found inspiration on a visit to a distillery in Scotland.
"I could see that this small distillery in the mountainous countryside was selling whisky globally, and I thought that I would also like to make my own whisky and sell it around the world," he said.
To differentiate its product, Nakamura said Shizuoka was the only distillery in the world that heats its whisky still with a wood fire underneath, instead of using gas or coal. The process involves a heavily shielded worker tossing in logs of locally felled Japanese cedar, stoking the fire and closing the doors.
The explosion of craft whisky in Japan follows a boom and bust among the more established players. Long viewed as an inferior copycat of Scotch, Japanese single malts and blended whiskies started racking up international awards around 2008, sparking intense global demand that effectively drank the supply dry by around 2015.
The shortage sent prices into the stratosphere. A set of 54 bottles from Ichiro's Malt, a trailblazer in Japanese craft whisky, sold for $1.5 million in 2020 at a Hong Kong auction.
Last week, Sotheby's offered what it claimed was the most valuable collection of Japanese whisky at auction, headlined by a 52-year old bottle that sold for 300,000 pounds.
With new supply hitting the market and from so many new players, Nakamura said it was important that new entrants protect Japan's reputation for quality spirits.
"I believe we need to put all our effort into making Japanese whisky that lives up to the quality of the Japanese whiskies made by our predecessors," he said.
Suntory, Japan's biggest and most well-known whisky maker, has invested 10 billion yen ($67 million) to upgrade its distilleries, including its Yamazaki site founded in 1923 that marked the start of the industry.
On a recent night at Tokyo's Bar Shinkai, which has an extensive menu of craft whiskies, Sana Kanbayashi was drinking a highball made with a whisky from Ichiro's Malt.
The 25-year-old IT industry worker said she enjoyed the variety of flavours produced by the Japanese craft brands.
"The whisky I'm drinking today appears to have been from a wine cask. It has a wine-like, slightly fruity taste after drinking it, so I think it's really delicious and easy to drink," she said.
Hiroyuki Shinkai, who runs three Bar Shinkai branches in the capital, said his customers' demand for whisky was broadening beyond the major players to craft makers like Ichiro's, Shizuoka and Kanosuke.
"We are seeing a big increase in customers who are interested in and drinking these kinds of whiskies," he said.