Japan is the second biggest producer of single malt whisky in the world, with the first distillations dating back to 1870 and the first commercial distillery (Yamazaki) founded in 1924. In broad terms, the style of Japanese whisky has many affinities to that of Scotch whisky, hence the spelling typically follows the Scotch and not the bourbon convention (omitting the letter ‘e’).
One unique aspect in the style of Japanese whisky results from the method of production of blended whisky. In Scotland, each distillery will earmark a particular style, and to make their final blended product, blenders have the liberty to source the constituent malts from a wide array of distilleries (that may or may not be part of the same group as their blended whisky brand). In Japan, however, the whisky companies do not trade with their competitors. Consequently, a blended whisky in Japan will generally only contain malt whisky from the distilleries owned by that same company (sometimes supplemented with malts imported from Scottish distilleries).
To counterbalance the limitations in the production of blends, distilleries in Japan concentrate on offering a broad spectrum of styles, ranging from the smoky and peaty style of a classic Islay, through oak-rich Speyside lookalikes, to the floral Highlanders.
This versatility and spirit of innovation has been a driving force for the increasing global success and recognition of Japanese whisky over the past few decades. Japanese consumption of whisky is also rather unique, as it is often drunk with food (straight ‘oyuwari’ or mixed with water ‘mizuwari’).
Japan boasts 10 whisky distilleries (for blends and single malts) including: Yamazaki and Hakushu – owned by Suntory and both on the main island of Honshu; Sendai / Miyagikyo and Yoichi, owned by Nikka (part of Asahi Breweries); Karuizawa owned by Mercian (part of Kirin Breweries); Fuji / Gotemba, owned by Kirin, located at the foot of Mt Fuji; Shinshu owned by Hombo; and Hanyu, near Tokyo, which became silent in 2004. The two guiding lights in the local industry are probably Suntory and Nikka.