The past decade in Japan has seen many new, small whisky producers fire up their stills. While these distilleries are small, their fan bases are huge, and global.
However, the Japanese whisky market has been dominated by the big players for many years. These three goliaths are known throughout the globe, and they own subsidiaries, distilleries, and other companies everywhere.
When it comes to whisky, they have led the way for Japanese expressions, bringing their our products, shining, to the global stage. Through passion, attention to detail, and great skill, these companies have created the base on which Japanese whisky has shot to worldwide fame and popularity.
To this day, many of the aforementioned, smaller producers openly state that without the giants the industry would look nothing like it does today.
Over in Japan, Suntory is by far the biggest, most popular domestic whisky maker, owning the renowned Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita distilleries. Founded by Shinjiro Torii over a decade ago, Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery introduced true quality to the Japanese whisky industry.
Over the years, the company has amassed numerous awards; most famously the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 was named the World’s Best Whisky in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in 2015. The Yamazaki 12 and 18 year-old expressions are global best-sellers, while limited releases, like last year’s Yamazaki Mizunara 2017, sell out promptly. The Yamazaki 50 recently sold for almost $300,000, making the most expensive whisky bottle to ever sell at auction.
The company’s Hakushu distillery isn’t far behind the Yamazaki in terms of quality whisky and fame. The Hakushu 25 was named the World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards (WWA) 2018. The wide range of flavours and expressions produced at the company’s distilleries come together to create the stellar Hibiki blended whisky range. The 21 year-old, in particular, is considered to be one of the very best blended whiskies in the world.
Beyond flavour, Suntory’s relentless passion, headed by Torii and his family, is believed to be the main catalyst for the success Japanese whisky enjoys today.
Nikka is the brainchild of Masataka Taketsuru, the man who travelled to Scotland to be educated on whisky-making and who previously worked for Shinjiro Torii (of Suntory), managing the Yamazaki distillery for 10 years.
He moved on from Yamazaki, as he wanted to create whisky in his homeland that was similar to that produced by the Scots. Up in Hokkaido, the Yoichi distillery marked the beginning of Nikka. Yoichi is known today for its peated, powerful expressions, often compared to whiskies made on Islay.
Wanting to expand its flavour portfolio, Nikka founded a second distillery, named Miyagikyo. The Miyagikyo character is floral and fruity, adding an abundance of new notes to the Nikka flavour portfolio.
As Suntory created the Hibiki blends, Nikka delivers the gorgeous Taketsuru blended bottlings. Some of the most popular bottles in the range include the NAS, the 17 year-old, which was recently awarded the title of ‘World’s Best Blended Malt’ at the 2018 World Whiskies Awards, and 25 year-old. Other hugely popular expressions by Nikka include the Nikka From The Barrel, the Nikka 12 year-old, and the NAS Miyagikyo and Yoichi single malts.
Kirin isn’t as well-known as the two companies above, yet has slowly but surely risen in the Japanese whisky world with their Fuji-Gotemba distillery. Founded in 1972, the distillery was a joint venture between Kirin, J.E Seagram and Sons, and the Chivas Brothers. However, in 2000 Kirin bought over Seagram’s shares. The distillery is now owned fully by Kirin.
Fuji-Gotemba is best-known for its stellar grain whiskies. The World Whiskies Awards 2016 named the Fuji-Gotemba Distillery Single Grain 25 year-old the World’s Best Grain Whisky. This year, the distillery’s grain expressions shone as the best to come out of Japan.
In size, the distillery is huge, with its cask racks rising high. Situated near the foot of Mt. Fuji, it’s very hard to beat the view of Japan’s most famous mountain from the site. Kirin’s distillery has grown steadily. Consistency and quality are key, and the team focuses on perfecting their expressions, and not as much on experimentation. This focus has delivered excellent results, and the world is starting to take notice.
It’s safe to say that we can expect great things from Fuji-Gotemba in the near future.
There you have it, the biggest producers in Japan in terms of size, funding, and history.
Stay tuned for our next piece on Japan’s smaller distilleries, and the wonderful sense of community they’re generating across the industry.
This is the second in an introductory series to Japanese whisky from dekantā.com, the world’s foremost online retailer of Japanese whisky, and other Japanese spirits, and most recently, Japanese wine from the dekantā cellar. Written by dekantā Head of Content George Koutsakis, who writes for the dekantā blog.