Japan is home to one of the ancient civilizations of the world, and like any of the great empires of history, has a long relationship with booze.
Perhaps the oldest and most famous of Japanese tipples is Sake, a wine made from water, rice, yeast, and the Koji mold enzyme.
While Sake was originally developed in China close to 6000 years ago, it was Japan that perfected large scale industrial production, making Sake the national spirit of Japan, used in social gatherings, religious ceremonies, business deals, and many other facets of Japanese culture.
While Japan has exported Sake to the rest of the world, they have also emerged on the world stage as an up-and-coming producer of fine whisky.
In fact, Japan is the 3rd-largest whisky producer in the world, trailing only Scotland and the USA.
The Japanese whisky industry is still very young, at less than a century old. In 1923, the founder of the Yamazaki distillery sent his star pupil to Scotland to apprentice under the top Master Distillers in the world.
After three years working in several Scottish distilleries, the apprentice returned to Japan to transform the domestic spirits industry from the traditional Sake and Shochu to a modernized production facility the equal of any in the world.
The Japanese whisky industry is largely modeled after Scotland, using the same ingredients, equipment, and distillation methods. In many cases, experienced Scottish distillers were brought to Japan to control the whisky production process, a rare nod to diversity in a country notorious for xenophobia.
The domestic demand for whisky grew slowly in Japan for several decades, before exploding in popularity during the waning days of the disco era in the late 1970s.
Whisky production was largely aimed at the domestic market until the turn of the millenium, when a Japanese whisky took home top honours in a major international whisky competition in 2001, which opened up the Japanese whisky industry to the wider world.
Today, there are two large Japanese distilleries that control the bulk of the market, namely Suntory and Nikka, both of whom can trace their origins back to the same Yamazaki distillery that sent an apprentice to learn from the Scottish masters way back in 1923.
In a nod to our local booze industry here in Canada, Ontario’s own Sleeman Breweries was acquired by Tokyo-based Sapporo Brewing in 2006, which is in turn owned by Osaka-based Suntory Holdings, the largest whisky producer in Japan.
An interesting facet about the Japanese whisky industry is the rarity of blended whiskies. While Scottish distillers will collaborate with competitors to source different whiskies for blending, such cooperation is nearly unheard of in Japan, with each distillery jealously guarding their stocks.
There is even an entire profession in Scotland that has sprung up around the negociants, independent whisky producers who buy rough young whiskies in bulk, then blend and age them for their own brands. This is considered to be near blasphemy in the Japanese whisky industry, with each distillery guarding their own brand with great zeal.
I am partial to the Suntory Toki, a blended whisky from the three distilleries in the Suntory family. Toki starts with a single malt made from imported Scottish barley in the Yamazaki distillery, which is then blended with locally grown grain whiskies from the Hakushu and Chita distilleries.
The Suntory Toki is made specifically for the export market, and is widely available here in Alberta for $60. Aging in both American and Spanish oak barrels has imparted notes of vanilla and smoke, with hints of pear and walnut on the finish.
This is an easy-drinking blended whisky, with none of the harsh notes that are common to the peaty single malts of Scotland, making it attractive to the mass market.
Should a more flavourful whisky be your preference, look no further than the Nikka Coffey Malt, named for its production in a Coffey still, also known as a column or continuous distillation still, which are more common in Irish whiskies than their Scottish or Japanese counterparts.
Notes of candied almonds and cinnamon dominate the nose, followed by a sturdy malt backbone with earthiness and toasted oak on the palate, proceeding to a spicy and almost tannic finish.
Whether your whisky preference is Canadian Rye, Yankee Bourbon, or old-school Scotch, broaden your boozing horizons with a wee dram of Japanese whisky.