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April 4 2012

Two Big Winners Among Japanese Whiskies

Japanese distilleries had a fine result at this week’s Whisky Magazine 6th annual World Whisky Awards.

Yamazaki won the Best Single Malt Whisky award for its 25 Year Old varietal and Nikka took the Best Blended Whisky category with Taketsuru 17 Year Old. Yamazaki has triumphed two years in a row, their wonderful 1984 vintage taking the same prize last year.

Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky

Suntory Yamazaki Whisky has been called “the soul of Japanese whisky”

Founded in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, whose whisky distillery became Japan’s first. Shinjiro Torii, an apprentice for a pharmaceutical wholesaler and liquor importer from the age of 13, developed an understanding of Western drugs as well as Oriental herbal medicines. He also cultivated a talent for distinguishing the subtleties among Western liquors, including whiskies. In those days, most people in Japan were not familiar with whisky, with the exception of the wealthier set, who could afford to import specialty foreign products.

The Yamazaki from Suntory

The Yamazaki

His well-developed palate would become useful later, when he in turn developed the subtle flavors of his whisky. He recognized that Japanese cuisine is characterized by delicate flavors and that the Japanese prefer subtle undertones rather than strong flavors. Therefore Yamazaki decided on a single malt variety.

In 1998, Suntory began producing Yamazaki 25-year-old, this year’s award winner, which is crafted from carefully selected key malts. In 2005, the distillery released Yamazaki 50-year-old, which at one million yen a bottle was the highest priced single malt whisky in Japan.

Suntory Yamazaki is currently exported to more than 25 countries, including the United States. They recommend drinking their single malt whisky straight, on the rocks, with club soda, or with water and ice.

Nikka Taketsuru

Resonating strongly with Scottish whisky-making processes, Nikka’s flavor was developed by founder Masataka Taketsuru based the distilling skills he learned at the University of Glasgow. His family owned a sake brewery dating back generations.

Miyagikyo Single Malt

Miyagikyo Single Malt

Well-acquainted with the family business, Masataka was also a diligent student, training at university as a chemist in preparation for continuing his family’s business.

However, rather than sake, the young man was drawn to Scotch whisky and decided to take it up as a life pursuit. He expressed interest in continuing his education Scotland and eventually became a student at the University of Glasgow, becoming the first Japanese to study whisky making.

Masataka established two Nikka malt whisky distilleries. Whisky produced at Yoichi, on the northern island of Hokkaido, is characterized as “rich, peaty and masculine”. Through direct heating distillation, finely powdered natural coal is used to heat the pot stills—a traditional method hardly used today, even in Scotland. Nikka’s second location, the Miyagikyo Distillery, is in Sendai, northern Honshu. The spot was chosen by Masataka when he came upon it in his travels. The site completely enclosed by mountains and sandwiched between two rivers.

The Scottish Connection

The connection between Japan and Scottish whisky-making only began with Masataka’s study of the craft. Decades later, a number of distilleries in Scotland found themselves in trouble when the demand for whisky stagnated in the 1980s. Since then, Japanese companies have taken over ownership and operation of the distilleries, carrying on some traditions and establishing others of their own.

Bowmore Distillery on the isle of Islay, an island of the Inner Hebrides, is among the oldest distilleries in Scotland, said to have been established in 1779. Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd owns the distillery, and this holding company is in turn owned by Suntory.

Tomatin is one of the largest malt distilleries in Scotland, and at one time its production was as high as 5 million gallons per annum. However, with the decline of the whisky market during the early 1980’s, Tomatin went into receivership. In 1986, Japanese firms of Takara Schuzo and Okura bought the distillery, becoming the first Scotch whisky distillery to be completely owned by a Japanese company

Ben Nevis Distillery was founded in 1825 by ‘Long John’ McDonald, a man descended from rulers of the Scottish kingdom of Argyll. The renowned Scotch Long John was named for this ancestor. Ownership of the distillery was passed down to Donald McDonald, Long John’s son, his death in 1856. However in the same period of decline that affected the previous two distilleries, Nikka acquired the distillery in 1989.

Japan’s ties with Scottish distilleries go back to at least as long as Nikka’s original trip to its distilleries. This year’s award-winning whiskies have certainly been formed as a result of this significant relationship. The whiskies of both countries are sent to consumers around the world, with many sent as USA parcels to the country’s many whisky enthusiasts.

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