Japanese whisky: Big fish, bigger pond

For a while a few years ago Japanese whisky was the drinks industry success story. Then it all went a little quiet. Dominic Roskrow investigates what happened to it

If you had to pick one overwhelming success story in the first decade of the new millennium, you’d struggle to look far beyond Japanese whisky.

Its surge of success started a little earlier, at the back end of the ’90s, but it went stellar as the new millennium arrived, converting initial scepticism to its favour, taking full advantage of the surprise factor and revelling in its role as new kid on the block. Japanese whisky swept the board in awards event after awards event, attracted the curious, won over industry experts, then turned its attention to a wider public. And, armed with a mountain of critical acclaim, the leading Japanese brands were sought out by whisky enthusiasts.

They even managed to overcome a higher price point at entry level, and when 12-year-old Scottish single malts crept over the £30 mark in the UK and a psychological disadvantage was removed, Japanese whisky took full advantage.

But what really gave the whisky its wings was the taste. With distilling history stretching back 80 years Japanese producers had studied carefully how to make whisky from Scotland and, just like its car industry, set about not just recreating the overseas competition but bettering it. Japanese was – indeed is – world class and worthy of all the acclaim it received.

But a couple of years ago it all went quiet. Not only that, but other world whisky producers, most notably Amrut in India and Kavalan in Taiwan, started to steal its thunder.

So has it all gone wrong for Japanese whisky and is its place in the sun coming to an end?

Japanese whisky is dominated by two companies, Suntory, which is by far the biggest, and Nikka. Both refer to the era of Japanese whisky starting in the 1920s, though there is considerable evidence that whisky was made in some form for up to 70 years earlier than that.

Nevertheless the modern era for Japanese whisky began when Suntory’s founder, Shinjiro Torii, bought land between Osaka and Kyoto and built the Yamazaki distillery. It is with Yamazaki and its first manager, Masataka Taketsuru, that the modern Japanese whisky story really starts, and it was fully established when the latter set up on his own to form the company that would become Nikka.

World development

Today Japan is the world’s second-largest single malt whisky producer, though it has relatively few distilleries. As a whisky-drinking nation the country pays particular homage to Scotland, and domestic whiskies have not always been as warmly received at home as they are today. 

But their development as world-renowned brands has been due at least in part to a national culture by which rival companies do not co-operate with each other. Whereas in Scotland the 100 or so distilleries swap and share spirit so each has a wide choice of styles to include in its blends, the two main players in Japan must buy in malt or employ ingenious ways to create a range of styles.