Welcome back to our Japanese Whisky series! Last time, we went over some of the highest-quality companies of whisky distillers in Japan that you might not have known about. While Suntory and Nikka have far and away the most significant share of sales in Japan, they’re not the only companies worth talking about or trying. If you missed the post and want to read it and learn about these other companies, be sure to check it out here. Today, we’re going to keep up the trend of showing off lesser-known Japanese Whisky by going indie – that’s right, we’re talking about Craft Whisky!
If you take anything away from this series, the most important thing to know is that Whisky in Japan is absolutely booming in popularity. Japanese Whisky went from being something hardly any brewery or distillery was exploring, to a super popular, highly acclaimed specialty market with many notable distilleries. In fact, in the last 12 years, more than 30 new small-scale distilleries have opened up and are distributing their craft whisky across the nation. We also wanted to include some resources for those who want to learn even more about Japanese Whisky, and the first recommendation is Nomunication–a great website that posts news, guides, and much more about Japanese Whisky. They often feature the harder-to-find craft whiskies that you need to try. As an example of their work, here’s an infographic of theirs from 2020 that showcases a timeline of Japanese Whisky. This screenshot shows you how detailed it is, but you should definitely visit this link to use the module yourself if you’re interested. You can filter by several categories, including brands and distilleries.
A great account to follow on Instagram for Japanese Whisky is J Whisky. They are based out of Munich, Germany, but regularly post about interesting, delicious Craft Whisky. They also have a website with a store that ships imported Japanese Whisky to countries in Europe. Even if you don’t live in Europe or want to buy whisky online, they’re a fantastic account to follow for anyone who wants to see some rare craft whiskies.
Now onto the general Japanese craft whisky overview and some recommendations! Following World War II Japan went through a period of significant economic growth, and during that time the Whisky industry rose to prominence. By the 80s, whisky was as popular as it had ever been in Japan. However, in the latter half of the decade, it took a sharp decline in sales and consumption. Much of this was due to a change in the way liquor was taxed, some think that the lack of variety may have had something to do with it. Whatever the case may be, by the late 2000s whisky consumption had fallen to around 1/5th of its consumption at the peak, down to 75 million liters from 380 million. Despite this massive drop in consumption, the quality of whisky never fell off, maintaining its critically acclaimed status as one of the best whisky in the world. In the last 14 years, whisky has been back on the rise, with up to around 180 million liters consumed in 2018. While it has been gaining steam with the Japanese population, it has done even more work in the realm of exports, with whisky even surpassing sake as Japan’s highest-grossing alcohol export in 2020. A lot of this growth can be attributed to the diversification of the whisky industry and the introduction of all the new players. Many smaller distilleries opened up since 2008, and have injected newfound passion into the industry. While the term “craft” didn’t catch on in Japan until around 10 years ago, the first company to open that is now known as a craft distillery is one that we covered in the last post, Venture Whisky’s Chichiba Distillery, run by Ichiro Akuto. At the time, it was what was usually called a “micro-distillery” but with the rising worldwide popularity of craft beer, the term craft whisky is much more common these days.
Since all of these craft distilleries have started opening up, you can find plenty of their great blends in liquor stores, bars, and online if you look in the right places. One term to keep in mind when searching for a good bottle of craft whisky online is “J-Whisky”. Searching for Japanese Whisky can bring you to some smaller distillers as well, but most often you’ll be shown whisky from the two biggest brands. Searching J-Whisky mostly eliminates this problem, taking you to sellers who are more likely to carry smaller brands and exceptional craft whisky. If you’re located in Japan currently, I’d encourage you to go to your local liquor stores and search the shelves for any brands you might not be familiar with, or even ask the shopkeeper for their recommendation. (Be sure to specify that you’re not looking for Suntory or Nikka if you’re looking for craft whisky–you can find those two anywhere!) This is actually exactly how I found the first recommendation for today: Shinobu Distillery’s Mizunara Oak. This pure malt whisky blend is pretty strong with a 43% ABV, but it has a really nice, smoky flavor. You could enjoy it on the rocks, but it may burn a bit. I definitely recommend trying it in a highball. It goes down much smoother and the complex flavor still comes across well in the cocktail.
Next up we have Kanosuke Distillery’s 2021 edition single malt blend. This whisky won the World Whiskies Awards 2022 Single Malt as the best in the Japanese category. The distillery’s location in Kagoshima lends itself very well for whisky production, with seasons taking the temperatures to their extremes allowing for the whisky to mature more quickly. The flavor profile on this blend is much more mellow than the last one, with an exciting combination of fruitiness and spices and a chocolatey finish. With the distillery having opened just a few short years ago and already pumping out award-winning blends, you should definitely keep them on your radar.
Our final recommendation for the day is Mars Komagatake Double Cellars Single Malt from Mars Shinshu. Owned by Hombo Shuzo co., Mars Shinshu is the second largest small distiller behind Chichibu Distillery. They actually had to cease production in the late 80s and early 90s due to the nationwide whisky decline, but have resumed as of 2011 and are making some really delicious blends. Coming in at 46% ABV, Nomunication says that “tasting notes indicate that you should expect soft fruitiness of apricot and plum, matched with a bit of sweetness of vanilla and honey.” Hombo Shuzo is a highly-regarded Shochu producer, and their whisky distillery has consistently been ranked just as highly. Shinshu Mars is located in Nagano Prefecture and holds the distinction of being Japan’s highest whisky distillery, sitting at around 800 meters above sea level. If you get the chance to try any of their Double Cellars malts, you absolutely should do so.
With these three recommendations to get you started, welcome to the world of Japanese Craft Whisky! There are truly a lot of hidden gems out there that are all worth trying, and hopefully, now that you know about Nomunication and J Whisky, you can start to find them on your own as well. Don’t limit yourself to just these sources though, with the craft whisky industry constantly growing and evolving, it’s best to find as many sources for information as possible, even if that entails becoming one yourself! There are so many different blends worth checking out that we’ve only scratched the surface today, so we wish you the best of luck on your journey to discover your favorite craft blends and distillers!
Feature photo credit by All About Japan