From humble beginnings in the early 20th century, the Japanese whisky industry began an aggressive expansion in the 1970s coinciding with Suntory releasing Japan’s first blended whisky. Suntory traces its origins back to Japan’s first malt whisky distillery, Yamazaki, built in 1923. Yamazaki distillery was expanded in 1973 to be the world’s largest malt distillery with 24 pots stills, employing different still shapes and sizes. Its seven million litres of annual capacity was only recently overtaken by Diageo’s ten-million litre new Roseisle distillery in Scotland.
By the mid-1980s Japan was selling 35 million cases, with almost all of it in Japan. Then Japan’s economic bubble began to deflate. Production was cut by a third. Whisky production entered the doldrums along with the Japanese economy. The recovery was slowly building pace until the recent highball craze. The highball has ignited sales amongst a new younger generation of Japanese drinkers being a mix of whisky, soda and ice, but with a Japanese twist.
In the world of whisky renewal is a constant friend. The whisky highball is demonstrable of the re-invention of whisky and soda. It was England’s first whisky cocktail in the 1870s. It superseded the ever-present brandy and soda, after Phylloxera cut a swathe through Europe’s vineyards, causing the collapse of brandy production. Whisky stepped into the hole that brandy had created taking the reins and introducing sweet malt tastes and an alternative to a good ole’ fashion cuppa, to the deprived people of England.
The first written record of the term whisky highball is credited to a British actor on tour in America when he ordered this drink at a New York hotel bar in 1894. The highball glass was a newly designed tall slender American tumbler. Now a younger generation of Japanese have embraced the Suntory highball, similar to the bourbon and cola of Australia, or a Bundy and cola. It has become so popular bars have installed highball draught dispensing machines and canned highballs flavoured with ginger, lemon and plum. The personal touch is noticeable in Japan’s discreet small bars where the bar-owner will hand-carve blocks of diamond-clear ice into perfectly round spheres to garnish the highball.
A consequence of the whisky slump of the 1990s allowed the large Japanese distilleries to lay down surplus whisky to build up age stocks. Suntory and Nikka now have deep inventories of old whisky. Last year Suntory released its 50-year Yamazaki malt.
Yamazaki’s history began with the father of the Japanese whisky industry, Shijiro Torii (Tory founder of Suntory). The Japanese originally modelled their distilleries on Scotland; however, the Japanese style has been diverging from their Scottish mentors by incorporating new approaches and adopting new technologies.
Japanese distilleries have pioneered different flavour approaches such as incorporating new yeasts, different wood programs and blending stratagems. The use of different yeast strains is aptly demonstrated by the addition of the local shochu yeast, yoji into the fermentation process. It produced slightly different esters and compounds in the wash. By promoting longer fermentation distillers are also able to coax out more flavours. By using different stills shapes will produce different flavours during distillation. At the Suntory distillery they produce hundred different styles of whisky by manipulating these production combinations. Their wood program even includes a local Japanese oak species, Mizunara, which adds more spicy sandalwood-like notes to the whisky. Some distillers go to the lengths of even filtering their whisky through bamboo charcoal.
The Japanese have tended to be sparing with flavour as whisky is often drunk with meals, replacing sake at the table, much like wine in the Western dining tradition. Therefore, the whisky needs to be more subtle, lightness over bold flavours to complement the more delicate seafood, vegetable and rice dishes. It is also serves as an ideal aperitif. Japanese are even known to drink their whisky warmed, like sake.
This is a clue to the difference in Japanese whisky style. With 99 per cent of Japanese made whisky consumed in Japan (and Japanese whisky is 91 per cent of total whisky consumed). The whisky flavour compliments Japanese sensibilities. The whisky has been described as echoing Japanese food, being delicate, complex and fresh to taste. This is an apt metaphor for the finesse, subtle intensity and complexity that is revealed, often in harmonious and translucent layers.