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A moment in the Sun-tory
If the first thing that comes to mind when you think of drinking in Japan is sake, you’re in the wrong spirit. Japanese whisky is having a renaissance, and although it’s been big in its homeland throughout its 100-year history, this is the first time it’s glittering in the global spotlight.
Delicate and light, often holding notes of incense and sandalwood, Japanese whisky is known as a delightful alternative to peat-heavy Scotch or sweet American bourbon. It’s subtle enough to mix into a cocktail, yet complex enough to drink neat. A tendency to be dismissed as a novelty by global importers and bartenders was reversed in 2015, when the prestigious Whisky Bible named a Suntory single malt the world’s best. Since then, exports, bottle prices, prizes, and the number of distilleries have all skyrocketed.
Grab a glass. It’s reading time.
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By the digits
$435,273: Record auction price for a Japanese whisky, set at Sotheby’s in March 2020 for a 52-year-old bottle of Karuizawa
$135.8 million: Total value of Japanese whisky exports in 2018, up 233% since 2013
$3.4 billion: Estimated domestic whisky sales in Japan in 2020, up 24% since 2016
$1.7 billion: 2019 profits for Suntory, the country’s biggest whisky producer (pdf)
293.2 million liters (77.5 million gallons): Volume of whisky exported by Suntory in 2017—about the volume of a crude oil supertanker
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Whether that golden spirit in your glass is “whiskey” or “whisky” depends on where it’s from. American producers use the “e,” while Japan shares the streamlined version with Scotland. That makes sense: Although Japanese whisky found an early fan base among American soldiers stationed there, its roots are Scottish.
Masataka Taketsuru, who helped found the country’s first distillery, at the company that became Suntory, in 1923, studied chemistry at the University of Glasgow and malt whisky brewing at Longmorn Distillery in Moray. By the 1950s, Taketsuru and his partner-turned-rival Shinjiro Torii guided the nascent whisky industry into its own, as the country emerged from World War II and a growing middle class thirsted for symbols of Western culture. In the 1980s, distillers found huge success marketing cheaper bottles as an after-work alternative to beer for patrons of izakaya, casual neighborhood bars.
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1918: A young Masataka Taketsuru is dispatched to Scotland by his employer, the sake brewer Settsu Shuzo. He returns two years later with a Scottish wife, Rita, and takes a new job with wine merchant Shinjiro Torii, who was keen to pivot to whisky.
1923: Taketsuru and Torii set up Yamazaki, the country’s first whisky distillery, which would evolve into Suntory, outside Osaka.
1934: Just after the end of Prohibition, Taketsuru sends his first whisky exports to the US.
1940-50s: Taketsuru quits Suntory and sets up a rival shop, Nikka, which competes for the palates and wallets of American officers stationed in Japan.
2001: Nikka wins its first major international award, from Whisky Magazine.
2008: Suntory begins to revive the domestic market by aggressively marketing whisky highballs with ads featuring The Last Samurai star Koyuki.
2015: Whisky Bible gives Suntory its top accolade, launching a global boom that continues today.
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“Near indescribable genius,” with “a nose of exquisite boldness” and “as thick, dry, [and] as rounded as a snooker ball.”
—Whisky expert Jim Murray in his 2015 citation for Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, the first from Japan to be crowned the world’s best whisky
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Today, Japanese whisky may have become a victim of its own success. Many of the best whiskies age in barrels for at least a decade, and the global boom caught Japanese producers unprepared. Now, bottles with “age statements” older than a few years have become rare and outrageously expensive.
While distillers play catch-up, most Japanese whiskies are now too young to carry any age label, which Tokyo-based cocktail critic and bar guide Liam McNulty (aka “Whiskey Richard”) says has arguably damaged the industry’s cachet.
Demand has pushed some distillers into unscrupulous territory. And, unlike the stringent rules for Scotch or Champagne, Japan has no legal regulation for what constitutes legitimate “Japanese” whisky.
While industry insiders have pushed the government to crackdown on fake whiskies, McNulty says many low-end producers resist, fearing that new regulations will force them to raise the price of bottles for the domestic market.
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In Scotland, distillers frequently swap casks and unaged whiskies, even with rivals, in pursuit of a perfect blend. In Japan, cask-trading is taboo; instead, distillers experiment with different methods and materials in-house. And since, in the early days, oak was too expensive to import from the US or Europe, most Japanese distillers built their casks from a local variety called mizunara, which is key to the whisky’s complex flavor.
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Try Japanese whisky in just about any of your favorite cocktails. Here’s a recommendation from Tokyo-based whisky exporter dekantā:
- A splash of ginger ale
Put the sugar cubes in a glass, add citrus wheels, cherry, and grenadine. Smash it just enough to release the juices and oils. Add a little whisky and ice cubes, then stir. Finally, top up with ginger ale or club soda.