So much whisky, so little time | Singapore | Tasting Notes

Japanese whisky – differences in production

Japanese Whisky Production

There is no doubt that the Japanese produce good whisky, very much on par with the best Scotch Malt. I have always known this, but the breadth and range of Scotch available are so wide, I simply have not given over much time to the Japanese, and I fear I have done myself a disservice in failing to do so.

Well that’s easily remedied, isn’t it. And you might heartily agree, but first, as with any new move, one must have a starting point.

Ok we know that Japanese Whisky is dominated by 2 giants – Nikka and Suntory, whose histories are inextricably linked. Nikka owns the Miyagikyo (aka Sendai) and Yoichi distilleries, and Suntory owns the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. Some other names that will pop up are the new Chichibu, founded by Ichiro Akuto, (he of Ichiro’s Malt fame), Fuji-Gotemba, a Kirin distillery, Eigashima (aka White Oak), Shinshu, owned by Hombo, and the closed Hanyu and Karuizawa.

That’s not really a whole lot of open distilleries to begin with, but where Scotch distillers might commonly have 4 stills, or even 2, the practice of trading in casks for blending purposes meant that distillers were never pressured to diversify – each distillery made its spirit its own way. The Japanese do not have this custom of cask trading, and Nikka’s and Suntory’s distilleries are designed to be able to produce a range of spirit. To that end their large distilleries come equipped with a range of stills in different shapes and sizes, and different washbacks in different materials.





That is not the only difference; here I’ve attempted to document the main differences in the way Scotch and Japanese whisky are made:

–          Climate: For a start, the climate of Japan is quite different from Scotland, with hot summers and harsh winters, it better resembles bourbon country. The same effects on the spirit apply. The wider climatic variations result in greater wood-spirit interaction and a quicker aging spirit. Wood-spirit reaction is therefore a greater consideration than subtractive reactions or interactive reactions in the cask.

–          Malt: Nikka and Suntory stopped using their malting floors in 1970/1. Today the malt is mostly imported from Scotland, and a portion peated as needed, but malt is also imported from Australia and North America. On the other hand, Chichibu being a small distillery has toyed with locally sourced malt from the Saitama Prefecture.

–          Wort: Where the Scots may use either a cloudy wort (wort with husk fragments present) or clear wort (no husk remaining), the Japanese only ever use a clear wort. This preference is a product of the country’s brewing history – not to say that one is better than the other. Though a cloudy wort is attributed with nutty/cereal characteristics and higher levels of lipids in fermentation, choice of wort is only one of many variables that determine the spirit’s character, though it is one that does affect fermentation choices greatly. To get a clear wort, the Japanese typically use a lauter tun or filter the wort through the grain bed of its mash.

–          Fermentation: Fermentation is important to the Japanese. While the Scots typically use one or a mixture of a few strains, usually dry distiller’s form, of yeast from the small pool common to the industry, the Japanese distillers cultivate their own set of yeasts, and commonly use multiple and different yeasts, as well as varying fermentation periods, to achieve different spirits. This meticulous detail is again a product of the nation’s brewing history.

Another point is that whether due to climate or variances in bacterial fauna, the bacteria that forms during fermentation is different in Japan than in Scotland, and the impact it has on the spirit is also different.

–          Equipment: As mentioned, the large Japanese distilleries have a wide range of stills (pot stills, coffey stills, Lomond style stills) in different shapes, and different types of washbacks (larch, pine, steel). Direct firing is also still commonly used for various stills according to purpose. Yoichi uses direct firing, for instance, while Miyagikyo uses steam pots.

–          Mizunara: In terms of wood aging, climatic factors aside, the Japanese also have access to their local Mizunara Oak, which is rare and expensive but used in barrel heads (Yamazaki even has a Mizunara aged whisky), otherwise aged in the regular bourbon/sherry casks then finished in Mizunara, for its specific flavour profile.

Mizunara has more Trans-lactones than American oak, which are higher in Cis-lactones. The result on the nose is a more pronounced coconut/incense scent. According to Dave Broom, Mizunara imparts ‘fragrant aromas of incense, sandalwood, pineapple and coconut’.

As a result of these differences, Nikka’s and Suntory’s distilleries can produce a multitude of spirit themselves without relying on each other’s make for blending. It would seem a fallacy to speak of house style but even so, Yamazaki and Miyagikyo have earned themselves the reputation of being between a Scottish lowlander and speysider in style, with Yamazaki being closer to the former and Miyagikyo being closer to the latter.

Hakushu is famed for its firm yet foresty wet green aromas; it is after all perched high up in the forested mountains.  And Yoichi is known for its peaty (mild next to Islay) whiskies. Any talk of house style in this sense should be taken with a big pinch of salt, or in this case, soy sauce.


The silent Karuizawa with it’s lamp shaped stills.

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2014 by in Japan whisky production and tagged , , , , , .
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