When one thinks of whiskey, one immediately has the gentle slopes, green meadows and plateaus, and high mountains of Scotland and Ireland in mind. Scottish single malt and Irish whiskey are world-famous. But American bourbon has also found its place in the world of whiskey. In recent years, however, one hears, sees and tastes more and more golden spirits from the Far East. Japanese whiskies are conquering the palates of whisky lovers, earning one award after another. Major brands such as Nikka, Chichibu or Suntory have long since ceased to be insider tips in the bar cabinets of particularly experienced whisky connoisseurs, but can also be found more and more on the shelves of well-stocked liquor retailers and on the drinks menus of sushi bars and Japanese restaurants such as Sansaro in Munich.
How did whisky come to Japan? What does Japanese whisky taste like, what are the special features of whisky from the Far East, and which one is a must-try? We at Sansaro have dedicated ourselves not only to the good cuisine from Japan, but also to the beverage culture of the island. Besides the traditional sake, many selected Japanese whisky varieties are waiting to be discovered by you. Come with us on an interesting journey into the whisky world of Japan!
If you want to understand what makes Japanese whiskies so special, a look at the past is unavoidable. Japanese whisky culture is still a very young tradition. This is mainly due to the fact that the Japanese market was largely sealed off by the Japanese shogunate until 1854. It was not until the Bakumatsu in March of that year that Japan's economy was opened up to many European products. There are two names in particular that you can't get past when dealing with whisky from Japan: Taketsuru Masetaka and Torii Shinjirō. The two are pioneers of whisky from Japan, whose distilleries still dominate the market today.
It was Masetaka Taketsuro who went to Scotland in 1918 to study chemistry. He was quickly enthralled by the culture of this beautiful country, got to know not only the science of chemistry but also the culinary specialties and his future wife. He married and began an apprenticeship at the Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown. Back in Japan, together with Shinjiro Torii, he opens the first whisky distillery in Japan in Kotobukiya, which would become the famous Suntory distillery. Shinjiro Torii had already begun experimenting with European products in addition to the traditional sake and Japanese liquor Shōchū. However, his attempts to press wine were rather unsuccessful. With Masetaka and his knowledge of whiskey at his side, he made a breakthrough with the golden water of life.
After the two initially pulled together to produce Japanese whisky in the Scottish style, one day they overreached each other. Taketsuru left the company and founded Nikka, the second major player in the Japanese whisky market.
But Japanese whisky was not as well received in the rest of the world from the beginning as today's awards would suggest. On the contrary, Japanese spirits were considered to be of inferior quality. In the 1960s and 1970s, an incredible number of distilleries sprang up in Japan, producing very quickly and even stretching whisky with cheap alcohol. That this did not blow the palates of Europeans, who were used to Scotch and Irish whiskey, was more than understandable. The good whisky was drunk by the Japanese themselves, with good food and as a substitute for sake. In the 1990s to 2000s, the market in Japan also became oversaturated: land prices shot up, the whiskey market was depressed - many a distillery had to close, including the legendary Hanyu distillery, but we'll come back to that later...
But soon this was to change again. In the 21st century, the very good Japanese whiskies found their way to the West. When Nikka won the "World's Best Blended Malt" award with its Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 Years Old in 2007 and Jim Murray named the Japanese Yamazaki Sherry Cask the best single malt in the world in his Whisky Bible in 2013, Japanese whisky had arrived in Europe.
Even though most Japanese master distillers learned the fine art of whisky distilling in Scotland, and also see the Scotch as a role model, they have adapted the recipes to Japanese standards and preferences. Therefore, Japanese whisky is quite different from Scotch single malt. The Japanese are known for perfecting what they have learned. The result of this effort can be tasted in the many excellent whisky varieties that can be found on the market today.
The Japanese know how to exquisitely combine ancient traditions, techniques and recipes with novel technologies. By using innovative technologies, they managed to develop their own unique style of whiskey distilling. They monitor the process of production and maturation, optimizing under the banner of typical Japanese artisanal perfection until they bring the best possible result to the bottle. The Japanese whisky makers' obsession with detail also begins with the choice of basic ingredients. When it comes to water and grain, they pay attention to the highest quality.
In adapting the traditional production of whiskey, the drinking habits of the Japanese population have been reflected. Here, people drink less single malt whisky and are more inclined to blended whiskies. Thus, the master distillers from the Far East turned out to be true blending kings. The marriage of whiskies from different barrels to an excellent blend, the combination of different flavors to a unique pleasure master the Japanese perfectly.
However, in addition to blended whisky and the use of modern and innovative technologies, Japanese whisky is also characterized by a unique flavor profile. Whisky from Japan is not a copy of Scotch whisky, but has its own special characteristics. It is milder, smoother and comes across as more subtle than its great role models. In addition, Japanese whiskies have a lower alcohol content. Of course, there are also excellent Japanese whiskies in cask strength, but Asians like to drink their whisky during or after meals, which is why the golden brandy is supposed to be somewhat subordinate to the taste of the food. As a result, very little peated barley is used in Japan, because smoky whiskey does not fit in at all with the country's culinary culture. Although there are always specifically smoky whiskeys, such as our Chichibu "The Peated 2015", or whiskeys with a very subtle smoke content, such as the whiskeys from Hakushu, the Japanese are generally simply milder, more balanced, less noisy.
We Europeans usually do not drink our whisky with a meal, but in a cozy round in the evening. Only chocolate, small appetizers and a cigar or two accompany the whiskey pleasure. In Japan, things are different. Not only do the Japanese enjoy the golden water of life with less alcohol as a companion to a good meal, they also dilute the spirit even further. It's not just a few drops of water that play a role in bringing out the subtleties of the whiskey, as we know from cask bottlings in particular. In summer, the Japanese dilute their whiskey with cold, in winter even with warm water or tea, and not too little of it.
Particularly popular, however, is the enjoyment of whiskey as a highball. Quite a lot of ice, often artfully shaped, ends up in the glass. On top of this comes the whiskey, which is topped up again with soda water. In Japan, highball whisky is a typical after-work drink for both men and women - and even the world-famous, top brands such as Nikka and Suntory offer whisky that is explicitly suitable for highball or is advertised as such. Since 2019, you can also regularly find a Highball on the menu at our restaurant sansaro, for which we use the popular Suntory Kakubin.
In addition to the two most famous whisky distilleries Suntory and Nikka, there are several other remarkable brands in Japan that whisky lovers cannot ignore. In our restaurant Sansaro we serve exquisite Japanese whiskies in nosing glasses as standard. By the way, we recommend 4cl, because then the aroma spreads better in the generous, high-quality glasses from Schott-Zwiesel. In addition to well-known whisky varieties such as the Nikka - Coffey Malt or the Suntory Yamazaki - Yamazaki 12, also get to know special whiskies from the Chichibu distillery such as the Chichibu - The Peated Cask Strength 2015 with its interesting and for a Japanese whisky very rare smoke flavor. During a sophisticated Japanese meal or at one of our exclusive whisky tastings with food pairing, you can get to know and love the world of whisky from Japan!
One of the most famous brands of Japanese whiskey is definitely Suntory. The traditional company of one of the Japanese whisky pioneers distills in two large distilleries. One of them is the oldest distillery in Japan, the Yamazaki whisky distillery. At the foot of Mount Tenno, the characteristic Suntory whiskies are distilled from particularly soft water. The single malt bottlings are sweet and fruity, but single cask bottlings also captivate with special notes such as those of the sherry cask.
The second distillery of the global Suntory group was founded by the son of whisky pioneer Torii Shinjiro, Keizo Saji in 1973. Hakushu is the highest distillery in Japan and produces very light and fresh whiskies. But there are also some smoky experiments, which are quite convincing. Another brand of Suntory is the Hibiki whiskey, which is a highly acclaimed blended whiskey from malt and grain whiskey.
Incidentally, Suntory is also the owner of old whisky distilleries such as Jim Beam or Bowmore - an expression of the success that Japanese whisky distilleries have had in recent years.
Another high-quality whisky brand that you can taste and enjoy in our restaurant is Nikka. The Yoichi distillery, which Masetaka Taketsuru founded after leaving Suntory in 1936, is located in southern Hokkaido (the northernmost island of Japan). Surrounded on three sides by mountains and one by the sea, it offers ideal conditions for the production of excellent whisky. Nikka also has more than one distillery. Miyagikyo produces particularly fruity whiskies that are comparable to the Scottish Lowland Ladies.
Besides the well-known brands, we at SUSHIYA have lost our heart to the brand "Ichiro's Malt" from Chichibu. Ichirō Akuto is probably the most distinguished whisky producer of modern times in Japan. He comes from an old sake brewing family and experiments with new ideas and old techniques with enormous expertise, the highest craftsmanship and in small series. This was probably in his cradle, because the legendary Hanyu distillery once belonged to his grandfather. Ichirō therefore made a start by resurrecting old whiskies from old Hanyu casks as the legendary "Card Series". His whiskies from the Chichibu distillery, which was rebuilt in the early 2000s, are now in enormous demand among aficionados and are characterized by very complex aromas. At the Sansaro restaurant, we have some of the varieties that are completely out of stock worldwide ready for you to try in small sips, including the legendary "Chichibu - The First", which is already an absolute collector's item!
The Japanese brand Akashi Whisky is a rising star in the whisky world. The White Oak distillery in Eigashima, where this wonderful whisky comes from, was founded back in 1888. It is the first company to get a license to distill alcohol. It produced primarily Sake and Shochu. Since the 2000s, whisky has also been part of the portfolio. Akashi whisky is distilled from imported malt from Scotland. Only a few bottles of the single malt and blended whisky find their way into the big wide world. Fruity, malty, with sherry notes and light wood aromas, the Akashi Whisky presents itself in the glass. With us you can enjoy this rare exquisite Japanese Whisky. In Japan itself, by the way, it is sold with molasses spirit, which according to EU law is then no whiskey.
If you look at the Japanese whisky culture, you will not only notice the differences in the enjoyment of the golden water of life, but also that the whisky from Japan is often very highly priced. This is mainly due to the fact that the domestic demand in the country is very high - and the world has now discovered Japanese whiskey as one of the best in the world. Due to the fact that Japanese whisky became known and sought after in the world very late, actually only after the first decade of the 21st century, there are also not yet so many old spirits waiting in barrels to be processed into a blend or bottled as a single malt.
In the meantime, a boom on Japanese whisky as an investment has also set in. Many of the whisky, which we make in the restaurant sansaro for you in small sips to taste, are no longer available on the market or only for amounts from 1,000 euros per bottle to buy. For whisky with age statement (e.g. Yamazaki 18, Taketsuru 21) the market is almost empty. Even those who try to buy in Japan usually only find bottles without Age Statement (NAS = No Age Statement). We still have our stocks well filled to continue to open up the world of Japanese whiskey to you and look forward to your visit.