distilleries in Japan, these include:
- Yamazaki - owned by Suntory, located between Osaka/Kyoto on the main island of Honshū.
- Shirasu - also owned by Suntory, located in Yamanashi on the main island of Honshū.
- Yoichi- owned by Nikka, located on the Northern island of Hokkaidō. Nikka is a part of Asahi Beer.
- Sendai / Miyagikyo - also Nikka, located to the North of the main island, near the city of Sendai.
- Karuizawa - owned by Mercian, located near to the town of Karuizawa in Nagano on the main island of Honshū. Mercian is a part of Kirin.
- Hanyu, located in Chichibu in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo on the main island. Closed in 2004.
- Fuji / Gotemba, owned by Kirin, located at the foot of Mt Fuji in Shizuoka.
- Shinshu, owned by Hombo, located in Nagano on the main island of Honshū.
For some time it was believed by many that whisky made in the Scotch style, but not produced in Scotland, could not possibly measure up to the standards of the traditional Scotch distilleries. Until fairly recently, the market for Japanese whiskies was almost entirely domestic.
However, in recent years, a number of blind tastings have been organised by Whisky Magazine, which have included Japanese single malts in the lineup, along with malts from distilleries considered to be among the best in Scotland. On more than one occasaion, the results have had Japanese single malts (particularly those of Yoichi and Yamazaki) scoring higher than their Scotch counterparts.
As a result it is now widely accepted amongst malt connoisseurs that Japanese whisky has come of age.
The production of Japanese whisky began as a conscious effort to recreate the style of Scotch whisky. Pioneers like Taketsuru carefully studied the process of making Scotch whisky, and went to great lengths in an attempt to recreate that process in Japan. The location of Yoichi in Hokkaidō was chosen particularly for its terrain and climate, which were in many ways reminiscent of Scotland (although financial constraints resulted in the first distillery actually being built in the more convenient location of Yamazaki on the main island).
Necessities due to the sort of resources readily accessible, however, led to distinct differences between Scotch and Japanese whiskies. The grains which compose the mash, for example, generally are maize, millet, sometimes rice, and some few others—wheat and rye are almost never used in Japanese whisky. Additionally, the initial mash fermentation process in Japan typically uses an agent similar to the koji used in sake fermentation. These two major differences lend Japanese whisky its distinction from other whiskies produced throughout the world.
One facet of the style of Japanese whisky comes from the way in which blended whisky is produced, and the differing nature of the industry in Japan. Despite the recent rise of interest in single malt whiskies, the vast proportion of whisky sold in the world is still blended. The requirements of blended whiskies are one of the main driving forces behind the diversity of malts produced by Scotland's distilleries. Typically each distillery will focus on a particular style, and blenders will choose from this wide array of elements offered by all the different distilleries to make their product. Whilst sometimes a particular brand of blended whisky may be owned by a company that also owns one or more distilleries, it is also quite common for trading to take place between the various companies. The components of a blend may involve malt whisky from a number of distilleries, and each of these could conceivably be owned by a different company.
In Japan however a different model is generally adopted. Typically the whisky companies own both the distilleries and the brands of blended whiskies. These companies are often reluctant to trade with their competitors. So 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).
This clearly means that blenders in Japan have in the past had a significantly reduced palette from which to create their products. It has been suggested that this may have been a limiting factor in the success of Japanese blends, particularly outside of Japan.
As a reaction to this, individual distilleries in Japan have become increasingly more diverse over recent years. It is quite common for a single Japanese distillery to produce a wide range of styles, from the smokey and peaty style of Islay, through the heavily sherried, to the lighter and more delicate floral notes of Speyside.
The diversity and innovation to be found in Japanese distilleries may be one of the contributing factors to their recent high profile and acclaim in the global arena.