Japan is the third largest producer of whisky in the world, behind Scotland and America. Interest is currently high in Japanese whiskies as a couple of them (the Yoichi 20 years old and the Suntory Hibiki 17 years old blend) have recently won some high profile world whisky awards. This increase in popularity has opened up the world of Japanese whisky to a wider audience that previously many did not realise existed. In comparison to Scotland, Ireland or America, the industry is relatively new. The first distillery started production in 1923 (Yamazaki) with most of the others not opening or starting to distil whisky until a boom period in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The early innovators travelled to Scotland to learn the traditional techniques for whisky production and then brought them back to Japan. This included buying most of their equipment, malted barley and maturation casks from Scotland. During this peak, some distilleries that had been distilling sake were switched to start producing whisky in order to meet demand. The large sake companies then sold these distilleries to other companies interested in distilling whisky and expanding the product.
Following a subsequent decline in popularity of whisky in Japan at the end of the 1980s, a number of distilleries closed down. This decline was caused by a combination of factors, mainly a change in Japanese alcohol taxation law and the increasing availability and cheaper prices of imported whisky from Scotland, Ireland and America. There are currently only seven working distilleries in Japan - Hakushu and Yamazaki (both owned by Suntory), Miyagikyo and Yoichi (owned by Nikka, an offshoot of the Asahi brewery company), Fuji-Gotemba and Karuizawa (owned by the Kirin brewery company) and Eigashima (owned by Eigashima Shuzo). Now, Japanese whisky is back on the up and coming to the attention of a worldwide audience for the first time. Demand is high and the first new whisky distillery since 1973, will be opened next year. Each distillery has it's own style and method for distilling and maturing whisky, so generalising is hard but here goes ...
* The whisky is normally distilled twice, as in Scotland, using pot stills.
* Malted barley is mainly imported from Scotland, some of it peated. American oak/ bourbon casks are also imported from Scotland and America, as are sherry casks from Spain. Some whisky is matured in Japanese oak (called mizunara) that gives different flavours and characteristics.
* The flavours and characteristics are most similar to whiskies from the Highland and Speyside regions of Scotland but tend to be fresher, cleaner and less malty.
* The Japanese climate is more similar to the states of Kentucky and Tennessee in America, than those of Scotland or Ireland. This means that the summers are much warmer while the winters are reasonably similar, making the extremes of temperature that the whisky experiences during maturation much greater.
* Due to the different temperatures and climate, the whisky will mature at a faster rate than in Scotland or Ireland. As in America, the whisky shows more wood influence as a result.
* By using a bit of Japanese innovation, each distillery can produce a broader range of flavours and styles in their whisky. They achieve this by having different shapes of stills, using different types of yeast for fermentation, using mixes of barley and other grains and experimenting with cask maturation.
* Japanese whisky companies do not share each others stocks of whisky when producing a blend, unlike in Scotland or Ireland. Therefore, blends will only consist of whisky produced at a maximum of two distilleries.