Why are Australians so obsessed with Japanese whisky?

I was trying to get my Japanese whisky trip started by visiting a small bar in Osaka, but I couldn't find it. I must have dumbly circled around the same block for half an hour. It had me sweating, because I had five Japanese whisky distilleries to get to in the next seven days, and if I couldn't find a bar in the middle of central Osaka, the whole endeavour was looking pretty shaky.

Then I spotted some empty single malt bottles resting along a staircase leading into a small, glowing room. Lined with wood, whisky and about 15 seats, this was Bar K, one of Osaka's best spots for Japanese whisky.

Attention to detail

I perched myself at the bar and ordered two: a Yoichi single malt from the Nikka Whisky company; and an old blended whisky from Suntory, the biggest whisky maker in Japan (and one of the largest drinks companies in the world).

My order interested the host, whose name, I later found out, was Ryu Fujii, an award-winning Japanese bartender. I watched in awe as Fujii, with an artistic, almost choreographed precision, made a Yamazaki Old Fashioned smoked with hinoki wood chips.

Fujii spoke English, and asked me where I was from and what brought me to Japan. I said I was from Australia and that, after years of researching Japanese whisky, I was here to try and unravel some of its hidden secrets.

"Do Australians really like Japanese whisky?" he laughed at me. I told him we're fascinated by it, obsessed even, but, overall, we don't know much about it.

Slump to boom

When I visited Suntory's Yamazaki Distillery the next day, about a 40 minute train ride from Osaka, the place was buzzing. I met Japanese whisky-obsessed tourists from France, China, the US, Brazil, even Iceland.

And yet, only 20 years ago, it was unthinkable that Yamazaki could have such an international following – it was barely even procurable outside Japan.

Japanese whiskies only started to gain international renown in the early 2000s, when single malts like Yamazaki, Yoichi and the lesser-known Karuizawa started winning major awards at spirits competitions.

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At the same time, Japanese whisky was deeply unpopular in its homeland, with sales slumping to their lowest point in 40 years. Distilleries stopped making whisky, or closed altogether.

The rising

The larger Suntory and Nikka whisky distilleries were much better placed to ride out the slump. When I toured Yamazaki, the birthplace of Japanese whisky, and the country's first dedicated whisky distillery, it was obvious that Suntory's flagship producer was thriving.

At the distillery shop, I tried to find a bottle of the 18 or 25 year old Yamazaki malts, or some of the older Hibikis – Suntory's famed blend. Nothing. Such is the demand, even the flagship Yamazaki 12 year old was unavailable.

The current situation is a far cry from the Japanese industry's early years. The founding of the Yamazaki Distillery in 1923 brought together the two men now considered the godfathers of Japanese whisky: Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru.

The first Japanese whisky

To create the first truly Japanese whisky, Torii's Kotobukiya company employed Taketsuru as the head distiller and manager. Taketsuru was chosen because a few years prior, as a young chemistry student, he'd studied the intricacies of whisky production in Scotland itself (even returning with a Scottish wife, that story later).  

But when the first whisky was released from Yamazaki – Suntory Whisky Shirofuda (later known as Suntory White) – it bombed.

The Japanese didn't enjoy the supposedly smoky, burnt flavours of the Shirofuda. This failure, along with Taketsuru's subsequent demotion and eventual parting ways with Kotobukiya (later renamed Suntory), has fundamentally shaped the Japanese whisky industry.

Taketsuru would go on to found the Yoichi Distillery on Hokkaido, which would become the foundation facility of Nikka Whisky. And in the eight decades since, Nikka and Suntory have dominated Japanese whisky, and in the process, created one of the most enthralling rivalries in corporate history.  

The forest distillery

The next distillery I needed to visit was Hakushu, Suntory's second major distillery. I took a bullet train through Tokyo and suddenly found myself in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, where Hakushu is located.

At Hakushu - once the largest distillery in the world - you build a picture of how Suntory creates such an enormous range of whisky styles and flavours. Like Yamazaki, flexibility is key, so different types of barley are used – unpeated through to heavily peated – as well as a variety of yeasts during fermentation. The wash (beer) can then be distilled in a mind-blowing assortment of still shapes and sizes, which all help to create unique distillates and flavours.

When these distillates are filled into casks – mainly bourbon, sherry and occasionally mizunara (native Japanese oak) – and then matured in different locations and warehouses, even more permutations are made possible.

Why has such an intricate production system developed? Well, unlike in Scotland, where casks are regularly traded between malt distilleries with a particular house style, Suntory and Nikka's frosty relationship means this has never happened.

It's complicated

I was thinking about this relationship while enjoying a sneaky drop of Hakushu on the train back to Tokyo (there's no mention of Taketsuru or Nikka at either Suntory distillery). Soon I'd be heading north to explore how Nikka distilleries had overcome the same limitations in their own sophisticated way.

Slowly, I was unravelling some of the complexities of the Japanese whisky story. Or, perhaps the whisky was making me think I was. What a travelling companion.

A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment. His book, 'The Australian Spirits Guide', was recently published by Hardie Grant Books.

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Have you developed a taste for Japanese whisky? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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