A Brief History of Japanese Whisky

What’s the first drink that comes to mind when someone mentions Japan, the fantastic and colorful world of weirdness? It’s Sake, right? Well, it’s time for a quick re-education. A new giant is emerging in Nippon and this one is not a sea monster – it’s the increasingly beloved Japanese Whisky. This week’s episode of “A Brief History of Booze” tells the story of how Japanese Whisky became one of the best in the world.

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Konichiwa! What’s the first drink that comes to mind when someone mentions Japan, the fantastic and colorful world of weirdness? It’s Sake, right? Well, it’s time for a quick re-education. A new giant is emerging in Nippon and this one is not a sea monster – it’s the increasingly beloved Japanese Whisky, which is obviously big in Japan - sorry, we had to - and it is taking over the world.

So, how did it all happen? It’s an exciting tale of seafarers, Scotland, science, wood, Bill Murray, and Matthew Perry [show Chandler]. We’ll get to that.

In the 17th century, Japan isolated itself from everyone. The government wanted to limit the cultural and religious influence of the European traders, and they remained hermits for two centuries, until Matthew Perry came to Tokyo in 1853. Not Chandler, but an angry American sailor, who just wanted to trade. Perry the Mariner, ten ships and thousands of men held Tokyo at gunship point and demanded Japan to start doing business again.

The Japanese saw how far behind they were technologically compared to the Western world and got a serious case of FOMO. One of the coolest new things they saw was the amber Spirit the Yanks called “Whisky”. The locals tried to recreate it - unsuccessfully, so in 1918, they sent a young chemist from an ancient Sake-making family to Scotland.

His name was Masataka Taketsuru, and he became a total Scotch geek. When he came back to Japan, he started making Whisky with his new pal, Shinjiro Torri, the pharmaceutical tycoon. Now, Taketsuru wanted to build a distillery in Hokkaido because its landscape is similar to Scotland, but Torri decided to settle down in Yamazaki. When the duo eventually split up, Taketsuru moved to Hokkaido, establishing Nikka in 1934, while Torri renamed his business to Suntory. Today, Nikka and Suntory are still Whisky powerhouses and huge rivals.

[Smartass Corner 1] By the way: Suntory is just Torri-San backwards. Clever, huh?

Alright, but what makes Japanese Whisky so special? Granted, it's heavily influenced by Scotch, but it's way more aromatic and lighter. And there's a secret weapon behind that. Meet the Mizunara oak.

Mizunara is a premium kind of wood, usually used for fancy furniture, and its casks impart lavish flavors of sandalwood and coconut.

[Smartass Corner 2] Cool Fact: the Mizunara tree needs to be at least 200 years old before it can be turned into a barrel!

However, the uniqueness of Mizunara proved to be both a blessing and a curse. When Whisky is matured for only a couple of years in it, it becomes intense and way too woody. That’s why they considered Mizunara inferior to the European oak. But! When the Japanese tasted Whisky that spent two decades in Mizunara casks, they realized they hit the jackpot.

It became a domestic hit during World War II and when Japan was occupied by the Americans and the British, they fell love with the local Whisky, too. When the Allied Forces left, Whisky gave way to Western-style drinks such as beer, wine, vodka and gin - but not for long. When Japan experienced its economic miracle in the 80s, Whisky became the king again, the average Japanese drinking three liters per year. The demand was astronomical and in a few decades, it would get even wilder, when the two Murrays happened.
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