Today, Japanese whiskies are beating their Scottish competitors in bagging international awards. This may come as a surprise to many since the art of whisky brewing in Japan drew its inspiration from Scotland. The revolution became evident in 2003, when Sherry Cask whisky, 12 years single malt from Yamazaki, won a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge. For starters, this is the world’s most authoritative liquor competition. Hibiki, one of Suntory’s brands would later follow the footsteps of Sherry Cask to win four times in a row, the coveted World’s Best Blended Whisky Award at the World Whiskies Awards.
The Japanese have a business philosophy; kaizen which best explains how Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of the Yamazaki Distillery managed to beat his Scottish whisky-brewer role models in their own game. Taketsuru studied in Scotland, where he was impressed by the culture of whisky brewing and wanted to introduce the drink in Japan upon his return in 1923. Constant innovation and experimentation have propelled Japanese whiskies to the top. Each barrel of Japanese liquor is aimed at bringing the best from the last, unlike in Scotland where consistency among barrels is vital. Many now argue that Japanese whiskies are of superior quality to those from Scotland due to the uniqueness of water, weather, the wood used to mature them in barrels, and the strategic position of their distilleries.
The Yamakazi distillery is established in a location where there is little interference to water quality. The water point had long been in use by Taian teahouse owing to its extremely soft water which is free from minerals, allowing clients to experience the true taste of their coffee. The quality of water is also critical when serving whisky in bars. One part whisky requires to be mixed with three parts water or soft drink when diluting the drink to produce the uber-popular highball. This is where Japanese whiskies win over the Scottish brands. Japanese whisky’s pure water enhances the “highball service” making everything sit in harmony.
The Japanese age their whisky in new barrels made from Japanese oak, or mizunara. The tree has to be over 200 years old to qualify for making a barrel. This tree variety imparts the drink with an ecclesiastic perfume that is hard to find in Scottish whiskeys. However, the Japanese Oak has an Achilles heel, since it is soft and porous. The Japanese employ an ingenious method to avoid leakage from the porous mizunara-made barrels. Some staves from other oaks are replaced with those made from mizunara to give the whisky an unpredictable, subtle, and impeccable taste. Scottish whiskies are usually matured in recycled barrels to ensure consistency in taste. Recycling of barrels leads to a reduction in aroma and character infused in the drink from the wood.
There are four different seasons in Japan. During summer when it is humid, the barrels expand sucking whisky into the wood. The drink is infused with character, aroma, and flavour. During winter, the barrels contract and the liquor is said to be “sleeping.” Scotland, on the other hand, has two seasons; warm and wet and cold and wet. The lack of alternating cycles of hot and cold weather in Scotland means that whisky matures fast compared to that brewed in Japan. However, the whisky will be lacking in aroma from spring flowers and fall foliage effect which make the Japanese whisky stand out.
A wide range of whiskies
The body and balance of the Japanese whisky body play a crucial role in pairing with food. There is a wide range of Japanese whiskies from smoky, peaty, fruity to light, which make it easy for a whisky lover to find a perfect match for any meal. Scotch whiskies are limited in variety, thus hard to pair with most foods.
High altitude, low pressure
Japan is a high-altitude country with some of its distilleries being the highest globally. High altitude areas have low pressure, which makes the boiling point to drop. The low boiling point helps make Japanese whiskies retain aroma, flavour and have a smooth taste. Most Scottish distilleries, on the other hand, are found in low lying areas. The resulting high pressure and boiling point make Scotch whiskies less smooth due to low retention of flavour and aroma.