Discovering the Land of the Rising Sun’s Distilleries

These days, Japanese whiskey is the drink of choice and the topic of many riveting talks. Whistle aficionados worldwide talk about the latest releases and the dramatic rise in demand with great enthusiasm. Many are left wondering if they will ever be able to affordably sample their preferred Japanese drams.

The Thirst Games

Everything transpired quickly. It used to be easy to find cheap, dusty bottles of Japanese whiskey by simply visiting a local liquor store. However, these bottles eventually gained the attention of prominent players in the whiskey industry. Many of them are now more than three times as expensive as they were previously.

The vast majority of us squandered our window of opportunity and must now pay the ultimate price. The story of Japanese whiskey’s meteoric rise in popularity around the world is well-known. However, few people think about the forerunner distilleries that helped put Japanese whiskey on the map.

There are currently numerous successful distilleries in Japan, but there was once a time when demand for Japanese whiskey was low and many companies were forced to shut down. Some people made it through but had to keep fighting for years. Others faded away, only to reappear as folk heroes. They were instrumental in making Japanese whiskey what it is today. A handful of their tales are presented below.

Yamazaki Distilling Company

Torii Shinjiro created the Yamazaki distillery and other minor brewers in 1923 and called the brand after the area, although commercial distribution didn’t begin until the 1920s. Eventually rebranded as Suntory, the distillery is today known as Suntory Yamazaki.

The worldwide demand for Suntory whiskey has skyrocketed in recent years. Yamazaki’s water and environment ensure that every sip of its single malt whiskey is well worth the treat. Those interested in seeing how Yamazaki is made from start to finish will enjoy the distillery tour. Yamazaki is the birthplace of Japanese whiskey, and visiting the museum there and partaking in a tasting there is a great way to round out a day of sightseeing.

Ichiro Akuto, the company’s creator, hails from a family of brewers and distillers going back 21 generations, thus it seems sensible that his company, Venture Whiskey, would found the Chichibu Distillery. In 1625, in the city of Chichibu, Saitama, Akuto Shuzo started producing sake.

The company’s shift to whiskey was initiated by Akuto-san’s grandpa. Isouji Akuto relocated the company to Hanyu, Saitama, in 1941. After rebranding from Akuto Shuzo to Toa Shuzo in 1948, they released their first imported whiskey, Golden Horse. It’s only natural that eventually Hanyu would start producing their whiskey.

In 1995, at the age of 28, Ichiro-san abandoned his position as a salesman at Suntory to assist with Toa Shuzo’s whiskey operation. He had no intention of eventually taking over the family business. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long, as Toa Shuzo had to declare bankruptcy in the year 2000 due to a decline in the whiskey market in Japan. After being in business for four years, the company and all of its assets were sold.

The new proprietors of Hanyu Distillery had no interest in purchasing the distillery’s aging stocks because of the dismal forecast for whiskey in Japan. In their minds, they were disposable. Ichiro-san started Venture Whiskey so that neither the whiskey nor the tools his family had worked so hard to produce would go to waste.

The Karuizawa Distillery

The Karuizawa Distillery was a famous producer of Japanese whiskey. Miyota, a town in Kitasaku District, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, was the site. Mount Asama is an active complex volcano in the region.

The distillery was founded in 1955, and its first year of operation was 1956. The Mercian Corporation-owned establishment was the tiniest of its kind in Japan. It was shut down in 2011, and the site on which it stood was sold the following year (2012). The distillery’s unsold whiskey supply was purchased, renamed, and distributed as a line of high-end bottles. The 1960 vintage is the most sought-after and expensive at $638,000.

The name “Karuizawa” alone is enough to make many whiskey enthusiasts weak in the knees; the heavily-sherried malts produced at the eponymous distillery of this Japanese town, which was notoriously shuttered in the year 2000, have grown so scarce and desired that they often cost tens of thousands of pounds.

Karuizawa Distillers, which plans to reintroduce world-class whiskey production to the area with the opening of its Komoro Distillery, has begun operations once again in the town after a twenty-year hiatus.

Yamanashi Prefecture’s Hakushu Distillery

The Hakushu Distillery, another Suntory location, may be found in the beautiful Japanese Alps, some 2.5 hours by train west of Tokyo. The Hakushu Distillery has a strong connection to its natural surroundings, including a pine forest and stunning mountain ranges, and even features a bird refuge.

The alpine snowmelt utilized in the distillation process gives the resulting whiskey a smokey sweetness. Headphone tours are available for Western guests, although they are not in English. The Hakushu 12-Year-Old is the whiskey to look for on these trips, but there are many more delicious samples to try. Reservations are highly encouraged as space at this distillery tends to fill up quickly.

This Kirin-owned distillery at Mount Fuji’s foot is the world’s largest, producing 12 million liters of whiskey annually. The distillery was established in the 1970s by a group of whiskey experts from Scotland, Canada, and the United States intent on making use of the area’s mineral-rich soil and underground mountain streams. Fuju Gotemba, located roughly two hours outside of Tokyo, is near several picturesque golf clubs, including the world-famous Kawaguchiko Country Club.

The Nikka Whiskey Distilling Company

Nikka whiskey is another iconic Japanese whiskey firm with a lengthy and distinctive history, having been founded by Masataka Taketsuru, also known as the “Father of Japanese whiskey.” In 1934, Taketsuru, a chemist at the time, created Nikka whiskey after traveling to Scotland to master the complex process of making scotch whiskey.

A Worldwide Trend

Commercial? Craft whiskey made in limited quantities? Unique and limited edition bottles? The Japanese have completely cornered the market on whiskey. When you add that stocks of all aged Japanese expressions are why Japanese whiskey has grown so popular worldwide dwindling fast, it’s easy to see.