Japanese Whiskey 101: How Japan Reinvented Scotland's Drink

The history of Japanese whiskey is complex, but the spirit is gaining speed

Is Japan beating Scotland at its own game with its diverse whiskeys, or simply reinventing the drink? Japanese whiskey is all anyone's talking about at the bar, and we can see why. 

The New York Times reports that the growth of Japanese whiskies in America over the last year is exponential; 44 percent in the last year for the Suntory brand. It's only within the last 30 years that Japanese whiskies — and the last few years especially — have been taken seriously. "Up until two years ago, if one in 20 customers had tasted Japanese whiskey, we were lucky... Now, out of 20, a good five know that it exists and they’ve had it. That’s quite a lot for the land of bourbon." said Flavien Desoblin, owner of New York City's Brandy Library to the NYT.

The first Japanese whiskey distillery, the Suntory distillery, was built in 1923 near Kyoto, reports Complex City Guide. The founder is said to have wanted a whiskey that would appeal to the delicate palate of the Japanese, which may explain the unique balance of Japanese whiskies. Japanese whiskies also have unique tasting notes of vanilla, orange, honey, and plum, which Essential Homme says balances out the malt flavors. They're also aged in a variety of barrels, the NYT reports: wine barrels, mizunara, or Japanese oak barrels, and plum liqueur barrels, to name a few. 

Another main difference between Scottish whiskies and Japanese whiskies is water: Japanese whiskies are meant to be served with water or ice, Essential Homme reports. The dense, complex flavors of a Japanese whiskey need to be broken down with a little water. Said San Francisco bartender Neyah White to the NYT, the Hibiki blended whiskey is best watered down to get the full mouthful. Looks like these whiskies are giving Scotland's best a run for their money.