Go For It – Japanese Tasting - September 2013

Whiskies Tasted

Out of all the whiskies we sell I think Japanese is the most misunderstood of all the non-Scottish whisky making nations. Many people see Japanese whisky as a cheap copy of Scotch and talk about it with some scorn. This is quite a long way from the truth, Japanese whisky has a style very much as honourable as any other whisky producing nation.

So in order to prove this, we gathered for The 

History of Japanese Whisky

In 1872 the Iwakakura trade mission brought a case of Old Parr Whisky to Japan, the first western spirit to arrive. This got a number of Japanese Laboratories trying to recreate Western Drinks.

Shinjiro ToriiThis is where our first hero comes in – Shinjiro Torii – Shinjiro at the age of 13 worked for a pharmaceutical wholesaler. He became good at blending traditional Japanese herbal medicine with western drugs. In 1899 Shinjiro opened the Torii Shoten canned goods and imported wines shop, the fore-runner of today’s Suntory company. Shinjiro had a real passion for the Scotch whisky he 

This is where our second Hero comes in – Masataka Taketsuru –The son of a Sake producing family –  In 1918 -he was despatched to Scotland by Shinjio to study at Glasgow University and worked at Hazelburn in Campbeltown and Longmorn on Speyside and learnt the art of distilling how the Scots do it. (1895-1979)was importing.

We of course need a heroin in any good story, ours is – Rita Cowan. Rita was a War Widow who’s family Masataka stayed with in Glasgow. They fell in love and married. Rita went back to Japan with Masataka.

On his return to Japan Masataka, now a distiller and passionate about Scotch and Scotland worked with Shinjiro Torii to open Japan’s first Malt Whisky Distillery – Yamazki – in 1923.

In 1934 Masataka decided to go into business for himself. Like many Scottish distillers he decided the environment was key to the quality so he moved North to Hokkaido – the north island of Japan where the climate is more like Scotland and opened – Yoichi Distillery. This was the birth of the Nikka Company.

Incidently there is a fierce rivalry between these two. Suntory calls Shinjiro Torii the Father of Japanese whisky – whereas Nikka call Masataka Taketsuru the Father of Japanese whisky. Suntory do not have any mention of Masataka in their history of Yamazaki – in the Nikka profile on Masataka they mention his involvement in the founding of the first whisky distillery in Japan but do not mention Yamazaki by name. – A proud honourable nation.

They do not exchange their spirit either, so each distiller has to be self-sufficient in whisky for blending. As both Nikka and Suntory only have a couple of distilleries each these distilleries have to make a range of styles. 

it’s worth pointing out that the malt is imported from Scotland for all of Japan’s distilleries.

 Masataka and Rita Taketsuru

1st Whisky – Nikka Coffey Grain

We just had to do an offering made at Miyagikyo distillery on a pair of Coffey Stills made in Glasgow. The Coffey still was perfected by Aenaes Coffey an Irish Customs Officer in 1831. This is a relatively new bottling, suggested by my friend Helen who works for Nikka, we both think it is very Japanese. It is soft and elegant, and a little bit exotic.



A Suntory distillery, the highest in Japan. It is situated on a vast site in the Southern Japanese Alps surro

Hakushu Distillery

unded by forest – looks like a Star Wars Set. Founded in 1973, at one time it had two still houses East and West and could produce up to 30 million litres a year, originally built to accommodate the whisky boom of the 1970’s.  Now they only use East side and make 3 million litres a year. Here they use four different types of barley, all of differing peatyness. There is a long fermentation in wooded Washbacks with brewers yeast. There are again six pairs of stills – direct fired- and different shapes and sizes using both condensers and wormtubs. For maturation they use five different cask types, ex-sherry both European and American Oak, ex-bourbon, new, and Japanese oak.



Yamazaki DistilleryThis is the original Japanese distillery and opened 90 years ago, however

since then it has grown literally beyond recognition. It’s been rebuilt three times, the last time was in 2005 when the still room was refurbished.

It was built between the cities of Kyoto and Osaka, two important markets, were 3 rivers meet, good water supply. Incidentally this was where the first tea house and what is now called the tea ceremony was performed in the 16th Century they also needed good water supply. 

They have 2 mash tonnes, one for peaty, one for non-peaty malt. The still house is a great example of the balance of practical and creativity which sums up Japan. Rebuilt in 2005 very modern, but they have gone back to direct fire stills – heated by a naked flame at the base. A practice which was ended in the 50’s and 60’s in Scotland. They have six pairs of stills, of differing size and shape, one pair using a worm tub as opposed to a more efficient condenser. This is to make very different styles of spirit. For maturation they use five different cask types, ex-sherry both European and American Oak, ex-bourbon, new, and Japanese oak, thus allowing even more variation of matured whisky so the blender has plenty to work with. Also as there are different spirits the whisky can vary in style not just age, therefore the spirit used for Yamazaki 12 is different to that used for Yamazaki 18 and not just the age. The distillery produces 7 million litres of spirit a year.


2nd Whisky – Hibiki 12

This is Suntory’s premium blended whisky made with malt from Yamazaki and Hakushu. The name Hibiki means resonance. Some of the whisky has been filtered through bamboo charcoal and some malt has been finished in plum liqueur casks. The nose of this whisky is spicy, and Tropical fruit, mango, pineapple and lemon. The palate is again tropical fruit with more vanilla. The Finish is surprisingly long exotic spices, coriander maybe.



Even when studying in Scotland Taketsuru – san wanted to make whisky on Japan’s northern isle of Hokkaido. He felt that only in this region, just across the sea of Japan from Vladivostok, did all the elements come together to make excellent whisky, mainly plenty of good water, and a climate good for maturation. In 1934, when Taketsuru’s contract with Torii ended, he and Rita moved to the little fishing village of Yoichi and made a heavily peated big bodied whisky. At that time they malted their own barley using Jananese peat, today three types of malt are brought in from Scotland. Yoichi is very much Japans most traditional distillery. They have three pairs of stills which are coal fired to give more weight to the spirit, this is also helped by using wormtubs. They also have their own cooperage The whisky produced here is the big, smoky oily and yet fragrant which Taketsuru would have drunk in Scotland in 1919.Yoichi Distillery



The second of Nikka’s distilleries was founded in 1969. Apparently it took three years of travelling Japan for Taketsuru to find this site in the Miyagi Valley where the Nikkawa and Sendai rivers meet. Miyaikyo means Miyagi Valley. Since then the distillery has been expanded twice and today makes both Malt and Grain whisky. The malt whisky is lighter with more summer fruits in contrast to Yochi’s big oily flavours. They have four pairs of copper pot stills all the same size and shape. It’s the grain plant which is interesting, they have a modern column still for producing grain for blends, but they also have a pair of Glasgow made Coffey Stills, the old fashioned grain stills perfected by Angus Coffey. They use Maize and Malted Barley in these stills and the whisky they produce has won lots of awards.


3rd Whisky – Nikka Whisky from the Barrel – 51.4%

This to me is typical Japanese whisky blended with malt from Yochi and malt and grain from Miyagikyo. Nikka from the Barrel was chosen best Japanese blended whisky under 12 years old at the World Whiskies Awards 2007. The nose of the whisky is wood and leaves. The palate is quite soft, fragrant with tropical fruity notes. The wood returns on the finish.


4th Whisky – Taketsuru 12 years old

A blended malt using single malts from both Yoichi and Miyagikyo vatted together to make a balanced and fresh whisky. The nose is sweet and woody, with caramel, apples and peaches. The palate is also sweet with the apples and caramel, richer woody notes and more body. The finish is bigger with  stewed apples.

5th Whisky – Yamazaki 12 years old

This is our best-selling Japanese single malt, it’s significantly different from its Scottish contemporaries. The nose is fruity but more melon, grapefruit and then aromatic. The palate is sweet and fruity, syrup like with a succulent mouth feel. The finish is more dried fruit and a very little bit of smoke.


6th Whisky – Yoichi 10 years old        

Although a couple of years younger than the Yamazaki, this single malt has a bit more weight in the mouth and more assertive character. On the nose you can pick up the smoky notes from the coal fired still. The palate is defiantly oily with more smoke and oak dried fruit all clinging to the tongue. The finish is nice and long.

This was one of the most interesting tastings we have ever done, through their exquisite whisky we really got a feel of this great country.

Oh and if you’re wondering about the title of this blog – Go for it was a principle of Shinjiro Torii, I think we all did.