Alcohol By Volume (usually abbreviated as ABV) is the standard measurement of how much alcoholic content a beverage contains. For the whole month of December, we’ll be entertaining our readers with stories on beers, spirits as well as the swankiest bars for our ABV series. Bottoms up!
With the rise of the popularity of Japanese whiskies in the recent years, it is worth revisiting the history behind the unlikely success story of the Scottish spirit in Japan.
The history of whisky in Japan began in 1918, the year that Masataka Taketsuru, one of the pioneers of Japanese whisky made his pilgrimage to Scotland. While enrolled in chemistry courses at the University of Glasgow, Taketsuru studied malt whisky at Longmorn distillery, Coffey grain whisky in Bo’ness and blending at Hazelburn distillery.
Upon his return to Japan, Taketsuru was hired by Shinjiro Torii on a 10-year contract with Kotobukiya company (now known as Suntory) to build the first Japanese whisky distillery in Yamazaki and oversee its production. In 1934, Taketsuru struck out on his own to establish the Dainipponkaju company (later renamed as Nikka) and built the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaidō, chosen for the similarity of terrain and climate to Scotland. Together, Suntory and Nikka dominated the Japanese whisky market, producing signatures such as Suntory Kakubin and Black Nikka Clear amongst other acclaimed whiskies which had swept international accolades such as the 2001 Best of the Best Whisky Magazine’s award and 2015 World’s Best Whisky in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.
Similar to Scotch, Japanese whisky uses malted barley which is fermented, distilled and barrel-aged for a minimum of three years. Most Japanese whiskies are distilled twice in pot stills. Japanese distilleries import malted barley from Scotland and Australia and uses American oak and bourbon casks, Spanish Sherry casks and Japanese Mizunara oak casks. With hot summers and cold winters, Japanese whisky matures at a faster rate compared to Scotch, with a distinctively pronounced finish imparted from the wooden casks.
A key difference between Scotch and Japanese whisky lies in its blending process. In Scotland, it is normal for whisky bottlers to trade single malt whiskies, resulting in blends that involve malt whisky from distilleries owned by other companies. In Japan, distilleries do not commonly practice trading with their competitors. Instead, a Japanese distillery tends to house a variety of stills, use different mixtures of barleys and grains, utilise different yeasts for fermentation and experiment with a range of cask finishes to produce different products. Yamazaki alone offers upwards of 50 distinctive whiskies.
In Japan, lower-quality whiskies are often served in cocktails, most typically the popular highball (one part whisky to two parts soda water and ice) whereas fine whiskies are savoured straight or on the rocks (with ice). With this practice in mind, Japanese whiskies tend to have a high ABV in consideration of the added water, which opens up the whisky’s aromas and flavours.